JOSEF ALBERS: HIS PAINTINGS, THEIR MATERIALS, TECHNIQUE, AND TREATMENT
Patricia Sherwin Garland
ABSTRACT—Josef Albers is best known for his theories of color perception. He expressed his heartfelt commitment to color, as a primary element, in his paintings.His techniques and materials helped him achieve his pure, even, luminous surfaces. From the application of color directly from the tube onto the white ground, alla prima, to his use of a palette knife on his wood fibre-board panels, each step in the completion of his works was extremely deliberate and meticulous.Problems arise when one attempts to treat Josef Albers paintings. Some of the common problems this conservator has encountered when treating them are discussed, such as friable, discolored and/or transparent paint films, varnishing questions and ethics of inpainting.
JOSEF ALBERS IS BEST KNOWN for his theories of color perception. His paintings in particular express a heartfelt committment to color. Born in Bottrop, Germany, in 1888, Albers completed his education at the Bauhaus in Weimar and then taught there from 1923 until he came to the United States in 1933. From then until 1949, he was Professor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In 1950, he became Chairman of the Department of Art at Yale University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1960. Albers continued his painting and graphics until 1976, when he died at the age of 88.
When asked why the inter-relationships of color were so important to him, Albers responded, “Color, in my opinion, behaves like man—in two distinct ways: first in self-realization and then in the realization of relationships with others. In my paintings, I have tried to make two polarities meet—independence and interdependence.”1 The key to Albers' art is that elements are separate, yet connected. “An element plus an element must lead to at least one interesting relationship over and above the sum of the elements. In art, 1 + 1 can equal 3.”2
Albers was strongly influenced by Max Doerner, his teacher at the Art Academy in Munich and author of the Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting. In Doerner's discussions of painting techniques, he clearly delineates the means by which an artist can achieve the luminous, evenly painted, pure surface toward which Albers so fervently strove. Albers' attempt to relate pure colors, one to another, unencumbered by extraneous visual material or subject matter, culminated in his Homage to the Square series, begun in 1949. The square's perfectly harmonious form is clearly manmade, not representative of anything in nature. It is a pure form, a “non-subject”, so that one comes to it with no preconceived notions or emotions. Albers created hundreds of his squares in a variety of sizes. His largest was 40″ × 40″ until 1964, when he began to paint panels measuring 48″ × 48″. A wonderful story was told to me about a critic who approached Albers in the mid-60's, inquiring as to his reason for suddenly painting larger. Was it in response to the large canvases of the Abstract Espressionist and Color Field Painters of the New York School? In his eminently pragmatic way, Albers responded, “Why no, it was because we got a bigger station wagon!”
There is a certain ambiguity to the Homages in that, in spite of their flat two-dimensionality, three-dimensional space is implied. This perception is due to the fact that certain colors recede, while others come forward, as well as because, by being weighted or positioned close to the bottom, the squares evoke a landscape proportion (and the effect of an unseen horizon line).
Like the Variants before them (Albers preferred to call them Adobes, after the Mexican houses), the Homages are based on a grid system. “The squares are drawn on horizontal and vertical divisions of 10 units each. The first Homage paintings consisted of 4 colors (or squares) each. Later on Albers added 3 more types, each consisting of 3 colors.”3 The units to the left and right are twice as large as the one on the bottom and the top is 3 times as wide. The squares have a common vanishing point, not in the center of the painting, but below center, to avoid a static result. There is always a white border visible on the paintings, as Albers wanted them to have a beginning and an end.
2 MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES
THE ARTIST'S WORK with pure color began with his glass paintings of the 1920's, while he was at the Bauhaus. As color is a manifestation of light, we can see how Albers later translated, as directly and intensely as possible, this principle of optics to painting.
Albers painted, for the most part, on untempered wood fibre-board panels, frequently masonite, although some of his earlier painted works are on other composition boards, and some are painted on aluminum. He also did a number of oils on blotting paper. He disliked canvas, as he felt it was too soft and absorbant. Instead, he favored the rigidity of the panels, where his painter's knife could glide smoothly over the surface maintaining a near-perfect, flat effect. Albers felt the rigid surface permitted the color to project more.
These panels were carefully selected by Albers for their regularity. In the earlier paintings of the forties and fifties, Albers painted on the smooth side of the panels, priming them, as Doerner suggests, on both sides, to reduce warpage. Albers' grounds were always as white as possible to allow for the most luminous and pure painted surface. As time went on, Albers switched to painting on the rough side of the boards, for he felt that the paint adhered better and he could ultimately achieve a flatter, smoother surface. He no longer primed the reverse, as he discovered this led to the possible development of dry rot. Instead of in effect “sealing” the panel, he found he could reduce warpage equally effectively by merely rubbing linseed oil into the reverse.
In an effort to achieve the perfect white ground, Albers experimented with a number of materials. In the early years, he frequently used a product called Luminall, a casein. He would combine it with linseed oil, damar and turpentine to avoid the flaking of his paint, which he felt would occur if the casein were used alone. These grounds have proven to yellow and, now and then one sees a border that has been overpainted. Albers did this himself, in an attempt to whiten it.
I have also encountered several paintings with a ground called Texolite, also casein. From reading some of the artist's correspondence with Charles Tauss (his student and, later, studio assistant and conservator), I concluded that it was also rejected by Albers due to its lack of adherence to the panels. Several other products appear: Feroxide, with linseed oil, damar and turnpentine and something the artist refers to as Wehlte ground, which may be a ground described by Kurt Wehlte in one of his painting technique books. This possibility is being investigated.
Around 1957, Albers began using an Alkyd Enamel, made by Dupont, in a flat coat with a semi-gloss coat on top. This proved effective, but not as satisfactory as the very white Liquitex gesso, which he used consistently from 1959 onward. The grounds were usually applied by a man who worked for Mr. and Mrs. Albers at their home, under the strict supervision of the artist. I have corresponded with this assistant, Albert E. Powell, and he told me that he would first brush away loose particles and then apply the first coat of ground, which would be left to dry overnight. It then was sanded and the second coat was brushed on, which would also dry overnight. The panels would generally take five or six coats of the gesso, but some took up to eight, in order to achieve the supremely smooth surface Albers required. A final light sanding of the panel and its edges with used sandpaper was required.
Before beginning to lay the grid on the wood fibre-board panel, Albers checked each board for the location of the lozenge pattern impressed in manufacturing. It appears strongly from one corner only of each panel. One day he discovered the diamond or diagonal pattern in the panels, and excitedly told his then studio assistant, Charles Tauss, that if the lozenge pattern was placed either in the upper right or the upper left of the painting, it would help to camouflage the circular strokes of his painter's knife in what are the broadest areas of color, the diagonals on top of the outermost squares. Once the orientation of the panel was decided, the ruling of the grid lines was executed with a 7H pencil.
Albers painted alla prima and, in the name of purity, applied all of his paints directly from the tube, without additional medium. In fact, he would frequently leach out much of the existing oil, as he thought, and Doerner suggests, that most modern paints flow too much from an overabundance of binder. Albers' paints are unmixed, with the exception of some pinks and pale blues. He felt that to mix the paints would reduce their intensity and detract from their purity. And often, Albers would test his colors on blotting paper first, to see how they would appear dry.
Although Albers was interested in using fine materials, he did not choose his paint for its quality. Rather, his true objective was the discovery of yet another color. And he listed each one he used on the back of his panels. In going through the artist's remaining paints, I have been able to list fifteen different brand names. Undoubtedly, there were others that had been used up, but a separate survey of all the artist's notations on the panels would have to be made to verify this. The colors were primarily oils. Occasionally he would use casein or acrylic.
As I have indicated, Albers always used a palette knife, or a painter's knife, as he liked to call it, to apply his paints in order to achieve the smoothest, most uniform surface possible. He would begin by painting the central square and work his way outward. When I first began treating Alber's paintings, I remember asking Nicholas Weber, Executive Director of The Josef Albers Foundation, whether he knew if Albers painted from the outside square inwards, or vice versa. He replied by telling me that Albers learned from his father, a house painter, that you paint a door from the inside out, so you don't dirty your cuffs! Each square, if you will, is executed in a circular fashion, the knife travelling around the space. Here is where Albers' discovery of the lozenge pattern comes into play, as he would try to minimize the visual effect of his strokes.
When we look at some of Albers' paintings, the Variants, as well as the Homages, we get the false sense that we are looking at overlapping color. In fact, each color is painted directly on the white ground, maintaining maximum luminosity. The illusion of transparency is a strong affirmation of the ability Albers had for finding the middle value. The placement of the color is fundamental. Its plastic role, how it performs, is defined by its location. All the intense thinking and planning, and the testing of paints on blotting paper first, to see how they would appear dry, was designed to allow the colors to act and interact as pure colors. And the Variants are additionally deceptive in the quantity of colors they project. We see an amount of color appearing as greater than another, when it is really the same.
In many of Albers' later works, we can see the ground through the paint film. Although the artist has sacrificed his even, regular surface here, he would rationalize this sacrifice by insisting that that was the logic of that particular paint, to perform as it does in one coat. He was willing to give in to the pure paint, even though it meant a less smooth visual effect. Albers once purchased an air-brush, but never used it. He was a supremely fine technician and preferred the hand-made, man-made approach which the texture of the knife, however minimal, expressed. He also never used tape to define his edges, although he claimed that he suggested its use to Mondrian. (As we know, Mondrian used it quite extensively.) Albers believed that if you are facile with a knife, which he was, it is easier not to use tape.
After completing the painting, Albers would go over all the edges, smoothing them down with a razor, cutting away any rough junctures. He would then go over these areas with a china marker to make them really smooth.
Albers signed virtually all of his paintings. An upper case A and the date was placed in the lower right of the panel. Frequently, he would sign Albers on the reverse of the panel.
Throughout his career, Albers experimented with different varnishes, usually listing them on the rear of the panels but not always being explicit about what they were. But Albers liked to have his pictures varnished. Except for some of the obvious varnish experiments, such as a painting in which he bisected the painting, one half varnished, one half not, right down the middle, Albers always strove for an even, smooth overall effect. He liked a saturating varnish, but disliked highly glossy surfaces, favoring, instead, a matte or semi-gloss one.
Many of his early paintings were varnished with a Grumbacher matte varnish (PVA) mixed with wax, or “M” varnish as Albers would note it. He later abandoned this, because he found, as he described in some of his correspondence, that a bloom would appear over certain of his colors, particularly Cobalt Blue. N-Butyl Methacrylate (Hypalon P-4, Lucite-44) was used by Albers for, perhaps, the longest period. Albers was never really pleased with the glossiness of this varnish and continually looked for alternatives, including combining the “M” varnish with the N-Butyl Methacrylate, in alternating layers. Today, the paintings varnished with “M” varnish are exhibiting highly discolored surfaces.
Other frequently used varnishes include Eonite, which apparently was a commercial product made by The Sears Corporation, used for flooring and lumber (I am continuing to investigate this). In any case, Eonite, while easily soluble in VM & P Naptha for removal, discolors as well. Albers stopped using it in 1959.
Beginning in the early 1960's, Albers frequently had others varnish his paintings. Generally, it was Charles Tauss, his studio assistant and later his conservator. However, some panels were varnished by Daniel Goldrayer, who used N-Butyl Methacrylate, and some by Andrew Petryn at Yale, who generally used the same. By and large, Charles Tauss used PVA AYAF in Toluene. Albers apparently was very pleased with the surface offered by this varnish, but only when the resin was thinned to such a degree that the coating was extremely light. Today, many of these paintings still look very good, but often they appear glossy. I have examined many of Albers' paintings exhibiting distinctly mottled surfaces, and ones in which one square appears glossier than another. My research suggests that these were not left this way intentionally, but rather the effect has developed from the varying degrees of absorbancy of the varnish into the paint film. The varnish layers have, for the most part, proven to be easily soluble. However, it should be noted that removal of even the slightest spot of grime with water or organic solvents can result in the removal of paint. I have found it possible to create a more durable surface, and achieve a similar visual effect with a combination of spraying Soluvar matte varnish (Permanent Pigments) and a light spray coat of either AYAF or B72 as a final varnish, or Wintons Retouch Varnish (Winsor & Newton) sprayed on by itself in a dilute solution.
The mounting and framing of his paintings was extremely important to Albers. He framed his earlier works himself, in painted wooden frames, mounting them with intricately fitted wooden strips so as to fit the panels securely into the rabbet of the frame. At one time, Albers built the wooden frames himself, sometimes in combination with narrow metal strips. He later (mid-1950's) chose a minimal metal strip frame with a wooden strainer for all his paintings. And now, the Foundation uses a similar metal strip frame with a wooden strainer to mount the panels left unframed by the artist.
FINALLY we come to some other aspects of the treatment of Josef Albers' paintings. In the time that I have worked on them, I have realized that only one rule can be applied—that is, never rely on anything to conform to any rule! Where one pigment on a particular painting will be so friable that to roll a dry swab over the surface would pick up paint, the same pigment on another painting is very, very stable.
As I have indicated, in the pursuit of the pure, even, color surface, Albers was extremely deliberate about his art. However, this overwhelming concern with purity can be problematic for the conservator. As a result of his application of paints directly from the tube, we often experience extreme solubility in cleaning the paint film with anything from a dry swab to aqueous solutions to organic solvents. I have experimented with several methods of cleaning, including the use of a fan to increase the evaporation rate. In most cases, I have found that the only way to remove grime and/or discolored varnish safely is by applying the solvent with a swab through a layer of Tosa tissue. The subsequent lifting of the tissue, damp with solvent, can remove the varnish by capillary action, without disturbing the paint film. Traces of remaining softened varnish can be safely removed by gingerly rolling the swab over the surface.
A number of the Homage to the Square paintings that have come to me exhibit an odd “smudging” effect in one particular square. I have seen this most frequently in the yellow ochre areas. It almost appears as though someone with very dirty fingers had been handling the surface of the painting. This has been the case on occasion, but here, when one tries to remove the so called “smudges”, one finds them insoluble. It seems that these darkened areas are a result of the electrolytic effect of the palette knife pressing against the oil in the paint. Nothing short of repainting, which would be unethical, could “correct” the visual interruption.
Keeping in mind the discussions I have had with Nicholas Weber and Anni Albers, the artist's widow, I believe that Albers would have had one of three responses to this problem. Either he would have left the painting as is, stating that this is the way this particular paint reacts with the painter's knife or he would have repainted the affected “square” himself or, finally, he might have discarded the painting as damaged. While he might have chosen any of these “solutions”, and he did choose each on occasion, it would be presumptuous to second-guess him. Generally, with the approval of the Director of the Albers Foundation, such problems are left untouched. In a few cases, where the disfigurement is more minor, the choice is made to glaze over the spots, to minimize them.
Albers occasionally repainted surfaces long after the paintings had supposedly been completed. Again, the paint was applied directly from the tube, with a painter's knife, and no added medium. In some cases there has been no apparent resulting problem of adhesion of the second layer to the first paint layer, separated by a varnish film. However, I have seen a number where severe alligator cracking has occurred, greatly disfiguring the surface. In such cases, the Foundation suggested inpainting the cracks. Sometimes, it has been necessary to fill the separations first.
Inpainting can be particularly difficult on an Albers painting, due to his use of pure colors directly from the tube. These colors have, naturally, changed to a degree, and are frequently unreproduceable, except by mixing dry pigments. In a painting with colors of particularly high intensity, the colors are virtually impossible to match, as any mixing of paint dulls the color (which, of course, was Albers' precise reason for not mixing his colors). On one occasion, despite my apprehension about the permanence of the pigment, I resorted to the use of day-glo tempera colors to find a successful match.
An unexpected problem with Albers paintings is a direct result of the poor storage conditions which the paintings endured while the artist was alive, when many of the panels were stored in a wet basement at Yale University. While this situation has, fortunately, been corrected, a number of paintings had evidence of mold growth and had suffered separations of the grounds from the panels due to moisture. In addition, many of the panels were stored, unframed and unvarnished, one right up against the other. All have been treated for their various problems such as cleavage and abrasions to the paint and varnish films. In the cases where paint from one panel had been scraped onto another, I have always chosen to remove it by mechanical means, with a scalpel, under magnification, rather than to use a solvent.
As we have seen, Albers' paintings are supremely logical in their design. The overall architectural quality which they possess extends beyond the selection of the wood fibre-board panels to the careful priming, the orientation of the design, the laying down of the grid system, the application of the paint film, the meticulous care in choosing proper framing and even the proper strainer on the reverse. Albers truly paid attention to every detail: witness his listing all his materials on the back of the panels and his formulae for the design often appearing around the border of the front, in pencil. To achieve his desired effect, he even painted all his pictures under the same artificial lights: two fluorescent fixtures, one containing warm/warm, cool/cool bulbs and one containing warm/cool, warm/cool bulbs.
In conclusion, Albers paintings are not entirely unique in the conservation problems they sometimes pose. What is special, however, is that their own rare purity, and the incredible deliberation with which they were executed, can, ironically, cause special difficulties in treatment, posing many questions, both physically and from a philosophical point of view.
Kuh, Katharine. The Artist's Voice. New York, 1960, p. 11.
Weber, Nicholas Fox. Lecture delivered at The Fort Worth Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, April 7, 1981(taken from lecture notes for this institution and others).
Gomringer, Eugen.Josef Albers. New York, 1968, p. 137.