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