JOSEF ALBERS: HIS PAINTINGS, THEIR MATERIALS, TECHNIQUE, AND TREATMENT
Patricia Sherwin Garland
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.