NOVEMBER 17 The Secrets of Color Sebastian Smee, The Atlantic

OCTOBER 15 Albers: art's relativity theorist Øivind Storm Bjerke, Kunstkritikk

JULY 23 Miró-Albers, a Posthumous Meeting Geraldine Vessiére, L'Echo

JULY 18 Albers and Miró at Palma de Mallorca Caroline Roux, The Financial Times

MAY 30 Albers Conquers Palma M. Elena Vallés, Diario de Mallorca

MAY 24 Square Dance Andrew Lambirth, The Spectator

MAY 8 2013 George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award Art Library Society of North America

APRIL 3 The Museu Fundación Juan March reveals the creative process of Josef Albers, poet of color and form. M. Elena Vallés, Diario de Mallorca

MARCH 30 Josef Albers: When Less is Much More Natividad Pulido, ABC

MARCH 28 Josef Albers: The Quiet Master Sergio Rubira, El Cultural

MARCH 28 Albers: Abstraction Squared Iker Seisdedos, El País

MARCH 13 Eyes on 'America', with Hope of Drawing More Corydon Ireland, Harvard Gazette

Interaction of Color App for iPad

The Secrets of Color

At one end of our bathtub is a demolition derby of plastic ducks, a dinosaur, and a mermaid Barbie in a formfitting pink-and-blue outfit, her bright-blond hair streaked with red and blue. The dinosaur is orange (what colors were dinosaurs?), with a tiger's black stripes fanning out from its backbone. The ducks are bright yellow—naturally—but also hot pink, shiny black, and in one case (because there should be no limit to a child's delight) a squeezable spectrum of green, purple, orange, yellow, and blue.

We grown-ups, of course, have our own "beautifully, unapologetically plastic" toys, and they keep getting "more capable and certainly more colorful." That hype came from Apple's design guru, flacking the leap beyond shades of gray and chrome in 2013: the iPhone 5c in white, blue, yellow, pink, and green, with mix-and-match cases "designed to add fun," not "just to add protection." Who isn't entranced by the vibrantly pleasing surfaces of things in an intoxicatingly colorful world—although who hasn't also been taken aback by the weird unreality of it? "Food-coloring pink, dead yellow," my wife sighed as she shopped for her new toy, settling on a dark-gray device with a white case.

As the American silk dealer Ward Cheney had already figured out back in the 19th century, "Color is one of the most influential factors in the saleability of products." He had no idea what a neon surfeit of manufactured color—dyed, painted, digitized—lay ahead as the engine of consumerism amped up childish enchantment into churning desire for, as Apple puts it, "bright combinations," the more, the better. By now, the electrical and chemical industries, and the expert "colorists" hired by countless companies, have applied their magic to far more than our fancy silks and shiny gadgets. Everyday staples—toothbrushes, running shoes, cars, homes, the entire urban environment—have become exponentially more colorful than Cheney could have imagined. In turn, most of us might be startled to learn that not so long ago, the world was far more somber than we can imagine.

Josef Albers's Interaction of Color was hailed as a "grand passport to perception."

The "color revolution," which is not too strong a term, has been more than a century in the making. The liberation story is one we're still trying to understand—for good reason: color confounds us. Its elusive complexity is central to its allure, and to a long history of anxious efforts to keep it under control. "Chromophobia," as the artist and writer David Batchelor has gone so far as to diagnose the tendency, dates back to ancient Greece, and its symptoms are not subtle. The pejoratives applied to color have run the gamut: foreign, primitive, frivolous, feminine, superficial, vulgar, inconstant. Immanuel Kant voiced a deeply rooted bias in Western art when he wrote, "In painting and sculpture ... the design is the essential thing ... The colors ... may, in their own way, give an added liveliness to what we are looking at. But they can never, in themselves, make it beautiful."

Two suitably dazzling, and dizzying, guides by contemporary design experts are crammed with up-to-date evidence of how much we have gotten wrong in trying to tame the mysterious power of color with rules and assumptions that turn out not to apply. Jude Stewart takes the title of her giddy exposé of conventional wisdom, ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, from the most basic error of all— the seven-color spectrum we're taught in kindergarten. Its inventor, Isaac Newton, seems to have gone ahead and decided that the spectrum should echo the seven-note musical scale, arbitrarily dividing purple into violet and indigo. (What is indigo? Don't ask. Nobody knows.)

In The Secret Language of Color, Joann and Arielle Eckstut offer a thorough survey of social and cultural lore, with bright daubs of science along the way to add information—and fun. The "secret" they set out to celebrate is that the language of color is irreducibly subjective—its expressive power a product as much of slippery psychology as of intricate physics and chemistry. The retina, as they explain, discriminates among millions of light-wave combinations, converting radiant energy into electrochemical energy. The brain then synthesizes and interprets the stimuli as colors. So external conditions, such as lighting and texture, aren't the only factors that cause color to behave in the bizarre ways it does. What happens in our heads makes all the difference: there is no such thing as color independent of the human system of visual perception. And that system encompasses everything from optical quirks (like contrast effects) to emotional, cultural, and even political associations. (Why are English speakers "green with envy," while Germans are not just green but also yellow, and Chinese speakers are red?) Glossy primers destined for coffee tables, these are guides guaranteed to trigger delight and surprise in all ages.

But for the historical insight and lucidity our color-drenched era could definitely use, the 50th-anniversary edition of Interaction of Color, by the Bauhaus-bred artist and teacher Josef Albers, is especially worth examining. Hailed as a "grand passport to perception" by one reviewer of the 1963 best seller, Albers's book now comes with just the right visa to get it into circulation today: a sophisticated app for iPads. Albers, who sailed for America in 1933 after the Nazis closed the avant-garde fine-arts-and-crafts Bauhaus school, liked to say that he wanted to "open eyes." Half a century after it appeared, his book still does that. It also serves as a reminder of how much the color revolution owes to artists who hoped to let loose a power that would prove far more than decorative.

A true stimulant to the imagination, as the modernists saw it, color just might work social and spiritual transformations in a world cowering before the oppressive gray of industry, the foul brown of the trenches. It was "a power which directly influences the soul," in the words of Wassily Kandinsky, and at the Bauhaus, where he arrived in 1922 after leaving Communist Russia for Germany, he proposed the theory that primary colors are intrinsically linked with basic forms. In a kind of utopian holy trinity, triangles were yellow, squares red, and circles blue. These pairings became the foundation of a new design grammar to be applied not just to canvas and sculpture but to daily existence—refashioning everything from buildings and chairs to cradles and nursery toys. "Fortunately," Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, summing up the wishful credo of innocence reclaimed, "human beings are really childlike in the best sense when directly appealed to by simple, strong forms and pure, bright color."

If only color, and humankind, were so tractable! Certainly the Josef Albers who arrived in the United States to head the art department at the newly founded Black Mountain College—a progressive incubator of experimental creativity and artistic collaboration outside Asheville, North Carolina—was a hard man to pin down. At once a twinkly-eyed spiritualist and a demanding pedagogue, Albers proved to be the advocate color had been awaiting. He was "a beautiful teacher and an impossible person," in the words of Robert Rauschenberg, one of Black Mountain's many illustrious alumni, who declared, "What he taught had to do with the entire visual world." Albers, who went on to head Yale's design program in 1950, emerged as the century's clearest expositor and defender of color's unruliness. Color could be put through its paces, he showed, but it could not be contained. Even as he rigorously pointed the way toward acquiring a command over color, Albers honored its independence. In the process, he dispelled its frivolous, sentimental aura.

"Art is swindle," Albers was known to say, implying that if you had the right bag of tricks, you could pull off any effect. But the ethos that prevailed in his classes, and in the book that he constructed out of the lessons he taught his students, was the antithesis of "anything goes." Famously wary of straying from a deliberate approach to "the most relative medium in art," he was determined that the studies he designed for Interaction of Color should focus only on color itself—no distractions. They should offer "no opportunity [to use color] to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything, or to express something—or one's self." And in his own art, he was nothing if not exacting. His best-known series of paintings, Homage to the Square, consists of differently colored squares, nesting inside one another so that the colors interact, in many cases with lovely, uncanny results. His impossible yet fruitful quest was to see these colors "behave; to do what I want, and not what they want."

That has an awfully authoritarian ring, yet the tentative theory Albers extrapolated from his simple experiments with combinations of three or four colors sounds almost like the underpinnings of an open, democratic society. These combinations, he proposed, could be seen as symbols of "community spirit, of 'live and let live,' of 'equal rights for all,' of mutual respect." He meant to point up differences between his own understanding of color and earlier views, such as the theory of complementarity embraced by van Gogh and the pointillists, which in practical application involved imposing a hierarchy: in each pair of opposites—red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange, and white-black—one color was usually dominant. Albers realized that the matter was more complex—and more interesting. To achieve sought-after effects with color, hierarchies and prejudices (about favorite colors or even "harmonious" combinations) had to be set aside.

Color's relativity had been established (and scorned by chromophobes) long before Interaction of Color came along. What was ingenious, and groundbreaking, was the way Albers presented the evidence: clearly, rationally, with each concise lesson leading on to the next, so that he achieved his goal—the honing of color sensitivity—in an unfolding, absorbing process. Using colored paper salvaged from printers' workshops and bookbinders, pieces of magazine pages, paint samples, and rolls of unused wallpaper, he crafted extraordinarily effective demonstrations of color's startling and deceptive behavior. He lured readers in with the basics, showing how one color can have, as he put it, "many faces": the same color can be made to appear quite different if judiciously modified by other colors nearby. Conversely, different colors can be made to appear the same.

But to emphasize Albers's careful plotting—and to extol the sparely elegant primer in which he compiled his lessons—is to miss a crucial ingredient of his approach: the infectious spirit of serious play he encouraged. Until now, Albers's classic couldn't do justice to the hands-on, experiential nature of classroom lessons that inspired Rauschenberg to praise him as "the most important teacher I've ever had" despite being "sure he considered me one of his poorest students." Thanks to the brilliantly designed app that accompanies Interaction of Color, readers can be collagists rather than just attentive spectators.

They can mix and match, and be mystified and enlightened. Take two different colors—a tan and a darker brown—and drag the tan over to a field of very light gray. Now drag the darker brown alongside a deep, bluish green. Ooh and aah: the two colors look indistinguishable. But you won't just gawk, you'll go on to explore further. I couldn't resist trying to solve Albers's tricky puzzles. How do you tell which of two colors is darker than the other? (In many cases it's difficult, if not impossible.) Can you transpose a constellation of colors (for example, four shades of blue) into a constellation of different colors (say, reds and pinks) while keeping their "intervals" basically intact, like changing keys in music? (Yes, sort of, but it's not nearly as straightforward as you might think.)

Above all, I became intrigued by the challenge of connecting Albers's distilled and adamantly rectilinear experiments with actual phenomena in nature and everyday life—the uniform blueness of distant mountains; the "glaring white" of the sun at noon; afterimages in complementary colors when you switch off the bedside light; the green ceilings of rooms surrounded by lawn. Interaction of Color takes color back from marketers and manically accessorizing consumers, calmly enlisting it to remind us how to be wide-eyed perceivers. Color, Albers reveals, is so much more than a merchandising tool, a marker of gender differences, a source of Instagram effects. Color is an inducement to wonder.

Installation view, Minimal Means, Maximum Effect
Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden
photographer, Øystein Thorvaldsen

Albers: art's relativity theorist

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition Josef Albers. Små grep, stor effect (Minimal Means, Maximum Effect), at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden, Norway, 18 September—14 December 2014. The review was published on on 15 October, 2014. The original Norwegian is below.

Minimal Means Maximum Effect (Små grep, stor effect) is the title of Henie Onstad Kunstsenter's exhibition of works by Josef Albers, and it is a natural sequel to the exhibitions HOK held earlier this year on Norwegian architects and designers' relationship to the Bauhaus, and the Bauhaus and scenography. Albers was in many ways himself a product of the Bauhaus, where he was first a student and later an instructor. After immigrating to the United States when the Bauhaus closed in 1933, Albers furthered his ideas in the context of his positions at Black Mountain College and Yale University.

"Henie Onstad is not alone in its interest in this phenomenon. Exhibitions, books, a flood of replicas, and a welter of design products in Bauhaus style have cropped up in recent years in the wake of the extraordinary exhibition about the school held at MoMA in 2009. If we peruse the catalogue from the MoMA show, we find Josef Albers represented with stained glass works, a teacup, a fruit bowl, furniture, and typographical sketches, and the exhibition at Henie Onstad also displays these works. At MoMA we were able to view his wife Anni Albers's woven works, a reminder that she had been the first designer ever granted a solo exhibition at MoMA. Her position is minimized at Høvikodden, however, reduced to a tribute from her husband in a series of red paintings dedicated to Anni – a banal personal reference which seems almost indecorous in Albers's universe.

"Albers's art is of course devoid of the slightest suggestion of sentimentality. Art was more vital than all that. It was through art that one gained insight into the spiritual world, a deeper common ground than what any isolated individual is capable of reaching. Art's history was only interesting to the extent that it held something useful and of consequence for the future. The foundations of Albers' work lay not in historical references, but in a confrontation with the here and now! Ideology, culture, society, and art had to be liberated from tradition and entrenched modes of thought.

"Albers was not a scholar, but he did have two art historical works in his possession that shed light on his conception of the correlation between form and life: Heinrich Wölfflin's book on the development of art from the Renaissance through the Baroque, from 1888, and Wilhelm Worringer's 1911 book on the Gothic. Both authors subscribed to a theory that the particular formal expression that became prevalent in a given age was a visual response to the spirit which commanded that age. Hegel looms in the background, and we sense that Albers is anchored in a German tradition where the skin is not just an exterior layer, but a reflection of the soul. He is in search of an essence he cannot formulate any other way than by pointing to a reflection of it. We sense an echo from the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus, proposition 6.522: "Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches. Dies zeigt sich, es ist das Mystiche." ("There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.") And as a conclusion, proposition 7: "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann. Darüber muss man schweigen." ("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.") Albers's ambition can be said to be depicting with paint what he cannot articulate with words.

"Albers was trained as an educator, and as such he was steeped in the reform pedagogical ideas that held that students should learn via practice. Reform pedagogy encompasses here everything from John Dewey's pragmatically-oriented motto "learning by doing," to Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. It also had a more official aspect. Germany was the world's leading industrial power in the years preceding the First World War, and there was increasing demand for a skilled workforce within the design and building professions. Albers found his bearings early on within a reform pedagogical landscape which asserted that the arts should play a practical role for success and well-being in the present and the future.

"While all aspects of Albers's endeavor are represented in the exhibition at Henie Onstad, his painting is at its core. The exhibition creates the impression that Albers's art can almost be considered experiments in an investigation of color, an impression that undermines an understanding of his work as advocating the erosion of specializations within art. For most, the paintings probably make a less than charming first impression. There are no supple, sensual brushstrokes, dazzling with their virtuosity. The colors are applied with a palette knife and impart a sense of having been pushed into place through innumerable repetitions of the same movement. Each color is contained within an area, most often a square but occasionally a rectangle. The areas have precise borders, yet they are neither blade-sharp nor perfect.

"The same technical procedure and formal pattern is repeated from one picture to the next; only the colors change. These pieces comprise a demonstration of the relativity of color. John Gage writes of Albers's work with color in Colour and Meaning: "Albers relegated 'theory' to the final stages of practice; and it is certainly questionable how far he had a coherent conception of colour-theory at all." The basis of Albers's work with color was observation, but true to the spirit of Romanticism he was certainly also aware of color's metaphysics, to which he would have had a thorough introduction through his teacher Johannes Itten and Bauhaus colleagues Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky – three color theorists with ambitious conceptions of the mysteries of color.

"Artistically, Albers gravitated toward Expressionism prior to coming to the Bauhaus, especially Expressionism's notion of liberating form and color from conventions. His greatest experience of art as a youth was seeing Edvard Munch's study for Solen (The Sun) on exhibit in Berlin in 1913 – that fantastic image with its intense splotch of yellow in the middle of the canvas radiating energy out into the space through beams of light in a diagonally arranged pattern. And so, centered compositions dominated by a single color emanating energy through its relationships with other colors became Albers's objective as well in his later pictures. Albers's choice of the square can in a sense be read as a tribute to Malevich's black and white square, which of course also can be read as a comment on color: color is a function of light, white is the sum of all colors, and black is the absence of light and thus of color. In addition, the quadratic format signifies that we are dealing with a flat image. Munch + Malevich = Albers!

"Albers contents himself with the observation that the quality of a color changes in its relationship to other colors, and he puts forth a simple "theory of relativity" for color. This aspect of Albers's endeavor runs parallel to perceptual psychologists' investigation of the effects of color in the 1950s. Albers also worked with pure geometric form and with issues related to inversion and the relation between background and foreground. The latter we recognize again as recurring themes in the abstract art of the 50s. Albers's book on color was published in 1963, thus too late to have had an impact on the pioneers of Norwegian abstract art at Norsk Teknisk Høyskole (Norwegian Technical College; today, NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology).

"Gunnar S. Gundersen, who was associated with its building department, and Arne Korsmo experimented with how the viewer perceives spatial relationships based on size, position in space, and color in an "experiment house" – a cube that could be spun around in order to alter the perceptual conditions. Ramon Isern, working in the same department, was interested in French phenomenology and carried out experiments with materials and form. Lars Tiller, Roar Wold, Håkon Bleken, and Halfdan Ljøsne, who were with NTH's institutt for Form og Farge (Institute of Form and Color), explored issues relating to surface and space, figure and ground, and color theory, all in furtherance of the reform pedagogy from which the Bauhaus also arose. Albers's direct influence on Norwegian artists was minimal, with the exception, however, of his sole Norwegian student, Wencke Smith (1927-72); although little-known today, Smith was one of the pioneers of Norwegian abstract sculpture around 1960.

"Returning to the paintings, they are quite small, almost demure. We sense that they are based on a practically ordered phenomenology: the picture must be readily comprehended from an arm's length and easy to handle. Some have asserted that Albers deviates from American artists in his refusal to work on a larger format. This is a misconception. Albers was a pioneer of the approach to formats that we find among the American Minimalists who scaled their works to the body. It is hardly incidental that the lumber in Carl Andre's wooden sculptures was cut to just such a weight that he could arrange the pieces on a gallery floor himself without assistance.

"As an instructor, Albers emphasized practical exercises with simple and inexpensive materials, and of utmost importance was the understanding he instilled in his students of the connection between a material's qualities and its formal potential. The students' analyses of such materials as paper, wire, plastic, and sand as bases for three dimensional form are echoed in work by American artists of the '50s and '60s, from Robert Rauschenberg to Eva Hesse. In his exploration of colors in combination with basic geometric shapes Albers not only paved the way for concrete painting around 1950, but also later inspired the Op Art movement and Pop art in their use of simple geometry combined with typography. More recently we rediscover Albers's work with the materiality of color as an important theme in Robert Ryman and Sean Scully.

"The Bauhaus ideal was the medieval artisans' workshop and the collective effort in achieving a common objective. But while the church, God's house, was the primary focus in the Middle Ages, modern society replaced it with profane architecture and aspirations of incorporating within it elements from all forms of art. Thus Albers was the ideal teacher at institutions that disavowed a hierarchically organized system for the arts with visual art ranked highest, and were more concerned instead with the interplay between products created out of a common impetus, be it a doormat, a teacup, a photograph, or a painting. Interestingly enough, Albers has in recent years gained greater recognition as a designer and photographer, and it is a shame that Albers the photographer is not more broadly represented in this exhibition. His unpretentious photography in a straightforward style evinces the same sobriety and solid mastery of craft that characterizes everything else he pursued.

"Albers's art is visual communication at its most effective, achieved by forsaking all digressions that might distract the gaze from the work's formal and technical execution. An aging museum visitor is transported back to lessons in form and color, led by enthusiastic and progressive instructors in the '60s. The need for optimal utilization of materials in a time of scant resources, the postwar era, and the ideal of functional and pure forms, has today migrated from applied arts and crafts to industrial production. Albers was a forerunner when it comes to this. Hopefully one will be a better, more selective customer at the art center's neighbor, IKEA, after seeing this exhibition.

"Albers's most famous student, Robert Rauschenberg, praised Albers for his holistic view of art, one that did not cultivate a hierarchical organization of the various forms of art. This point is unfortunately lost in the installation of the show at Henie Onstad. The immaculate presentation, in the spirit of MoMA, with informative, yet concisely formulated wall texts, promotes an impression of Albers as an isolated genius. And yet, conversely, his strength lay in having been part of an interesting network where art, craft, design, and architecture combined in a fertile interplay, where he played an important role due to his versatility.

"The exhibition is installed in the Prismasalene, a space that represents completely different ideals than those Albers stood for. The organic and expressive architecture is not the best environment for his restrained work. The walls on which the works are hung are like a screen that is folded in and out, leading the eye to wander and observe works at an angle. Albers's art resists this wandering gaze; it demands that one stop up and concentrate on one work at a time. The perfect surroundings for this art are in fact the living rooms of the simple and spare architecture these works they were meant for. Their place is in just such a total work of art.

Albers, kunstens relativitetsteoretiker

Små grep, stor effekt, er tittelen på Henie Onstads utstilling med arbeider av Josef Albers. Den er en naturlig oppfølger til de to utstillingene om norske arkitekter og designeres forhold til Bauhaus, og Bauhaus og scenografi tidligere i år. Albers selv var på mange måter et produkt av Bauhaus, der han først var elev og senere lærer, før han dro til USA da skolen ble nedlagt i 1933. I USA videreførte han så sine ideer i stillingene han fikk ved Black Mountain College og Yale.

Henie Onstad er ikke alene om å interessere seg for fenomenet. Utstillinger, bøker og en styrtsjø av replikaer og pastisjer av designprodukter i Bauhausstil har dukket opp de siste årene, forsterket av den fantastiske utstillingen om skolen på MoMA i 2009. Plukker vi frem katalogen fra MoMA, er Josef Albers representert med glassbilder, en tekopp, et fruktfat, møbler og typografiske utkast. Utstillingen på Henie Onstad viser også disse arbeidene. På MoMA fikk vi se hustruen Anni Albers' vevnader, en påminnelse om at hun var den første designeren som fikk en separatutstilling på MoMA. På Høvikodden er hennes rolle redusert til en hyllest fra ektemannen i en serie røde malerier dedisert til Annie – en banal personlig referanse som nesten er ukledelig i Albers' univers.

Albers' kunst er nemlig avskallet alt som smaker av føleri. Kunsten var viktigere enn som så. Gjennom den kunne man få innsikt i en spirituell verden, en dypere felles grunn enn det det isolerte enkeltmenneske kan nå frem til. Kunstens historie var bare interessant med tanke på om det var noe der som kunne brukes med konsekvenser for morgendagen. Idealene for Albers' kunstnerskap lå ikke i historiske referanser, men i en konfrontasjon med et her og nå! Ideologi, kultur, samfunn og kunst måtte frigjøres fra tradisjon og vanetenkning.

Albers var ikke opptatt av boklig lærdom, men han hadde to kunsthistoriske verk i sin bokhylle, som antyder hvordan han oppfattet sammenhengen mellom form og liv: Heinrich Wölfflins bok om kunstens utvikling fra renessansen over i barokken fra 1888, og Wilhelm Worringers bok om gotikken fra 1911. Begge forfattere bekjente seg til en teori om at den formfølelsen som gjorde seg gjeldende i en bestemt epoke, var et visuelt tilsvar til den ånd som behersket epoken. Hegel spøker i bakgrunnen, og vi aner at Albers er forankret i en tysk tradisjon der skinnet ikke bare er en ytre ham, men et gjenskinn av ånden. Han er på leting etter en essens han ikke kan formulere på annet vis enn gjennom å peke på et gjenskinn av den. Vi aner et ekko fra wienerfilosofen Ludwig Wittgensteins Tractatus, sats 6.522: «Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches. Dies zeigt sich, es ist das Mystiche.» Og som en konklusjon sats 7: «Wovon man nicht sprechen kann. Darüber muss man schweigen.» Albers' ambisjon kan sies å være å vise i maleriet det han ikke kan tale om.

Albers var utdannet formingslærer, og han var støpt i reformpedagogiske ideer som hvilte på at eleven skulle lære gjennom praksis. Reformpedagogikk omfatter her et vidt knippe av ideer som inkluderer alt fra John Dewys pragmatisk orienterte devise «Learning by doing», til Maria Montessori og Rudolf Steiner. Den hadde også en mer offisiell side. Tyskland var verdens ledende industrimakt i årene før første verdenskrig. Det var behov for faglært arbeidskraft innenfor design og byggfag. Albers orienterte seg allerede som ung i et slikt reformpedagogisk landskap der det kunstneriske skulle spille en praktisk rolle for velstand og velvære i nåtid og framtid.

Alle sider av Albers' virke inngår i utstillingen på Henie Onstad, men maleriet er satt i sentrum. Utstillingen skaper et inntrykk at Albers' kunst nærmest er å betrakte som eksperimenter som inngår i en utforsking av farge. Det svekker forståelsen av hans virke som en representant for et kunstsyn som brøt ned spesialiseringer. Maleriene vil nok for de fleste gi et lite sjarmerende førsteinntrykk. Her er ingen spenstige, sensuelle penseldrag som kan forføre med sin virtuositet. Fargen er lagt på med palettkniv og gir en følelse av å ha blitt dyttet på plass gjennom utallige repetisjoner av den samme bevegelsen. Hver farge er samlet innenfor et felt, som oftest en firkant, men det kan også være et rektangel. Feltene har presise avgrensninger, men de er ikke knivskarpe eller perfekte.

Den samme tekniske prosedyre og det samme formskjema gjentas fra bilde til bilde. Fargene endres. Dette er demonstrasjonsstykker på fargens relativitet. Om hans arbeid med fargen skriver John Gage i Colour and Meaning: «Albers relegated 'theory' to the final stages of practice; and it is certainly questionable how far he had a coherent conception of colour-theory at all». Til grunn for Albers' arbeid med fargen lå observasjon, men i beste romantiske ånd var han nok også bevisst fargens metafysikk, som hadde han fått grundige innføringer i gjennom sine lærere Johannes Itten, og Bauhaus-kollegaene Paul Klee og Wassily Kandinsky – tre fargeteoretikere med høytflyvende forestillinger om fargens mysterier.

Kunstnerisk orienterte Albers seg mot ekspresjonismen før han kom til Bauhaus, og kanskje særlig mot ekspresjonismens idé om en frigjøring av form og farge fra konvensjoner. Hans største kunstopplevelse som ung var synet av Edvard Munchs utkast til Solen, utstilt i Berlin i 1913 – det fantastiske bildet med den voldsomme gule fargeflekken midt på lerretet som pumpet energi ut i rommet gjennom stråler i et diagonalt stilt mønster. Sentrerte komposisjoner dominert av én farge som emanerer energi gjennom de relasjoner denne hovedfargen inngår i, blir da også Albers' formel i de senere bildene. Albers' valg av firkanten kan på sin side leses som en hyllest til Malevich' svarte og hvite kvadrat, som jo også kan leses som en kommentar til farge; farge er knyttet til lys, og hvitt er summen av alle farger, og svart er fravær av lys og dermed av farge. Det kvadratiske formatet blir dessuten et tegn på at vi har å gjøre med et flatt bilde. Munch + Malevich = Albers!

Albers nøyer seg med iakttagelsen av at farger skifter karakter ut fra sitt forhold til andre farger, og fremsetter en enkel fargenes «relativitetsteori». Vi kan se denne delen av hans virksomhet som en parallell til hvordan virkningen av farger ble utforsket av persepsjonspsykologer i 1950-årene. Han arbeidet også med klare gestalter og med problemstillinger knyttet til inversjoner og relasjonen mellom bakgrunn og forgrunn. Dette siste kjenner vi igjen som gjennomgangstemaer i 50-tallets abstrakte kunst. Albers' bok om farger utkom i 1963, og kom altså for sent til å få noen betydning for pionerene i norsk abstrakt kunst ved Norsk Teknisk Høyskole (i dag NTNU).

Gunnar S. Gundersen som var knyttet til avdelingen for bygg, eksperimenterte sammen med Arne Korsmo med hvordan betrakteren oppfatter romlige forhold ut fra størrelse, posisjon i rommet og farger i et «eksperiment-hus» – en kubus som kunne snurres rundt for å endre persepsjonsforholdene. Ramon Isern, som også var knyttet til avdelingen for bygg, var opptatt av fransk fenomenologi og foretok eksperimenter med material og form. Lars Tiller, Roar Wold, Håkon Bleken og Halfdan Ljøsne som var knyttet til NTHs institutt for Form og Farge, utforsket problemstillinger knyttet til flate og rom, figur og grunn og fargeteori. Alt dette ble gjort i forlengelsen av den reformpedagogikken også Bauhaus vokste ut av. Mens Albers spilte knapt noen direkte rolle for norske kunstnere. Unntak er hans eneste norske elev; den i dag ukjente Wencke Smith (1927-72), som var en av pionerene i norsk abstrakt skulptur omkring 1960.

Vender vi tilbake til bildene, så er de ganske små, nærmest unnselige. Vi aner at det ligger en praktisk betinget fenomenologi i bunnen; bildet skal være oversiktlig på en armlengdes avstand og lett å håndtere. Enkelte har påstått at Albers avviker fra amerikanske kunstnere ved at han ikke går opp i format. Det er en misforståelse. Albers var en foregangsmann for den tilnærming til formater vi finner hos de amerikanske minimalistene som relaterer arbeidene til kroppen. Det er knapt tilfeldig at i Carl Andres skulpturer av treplater var platene skåret til slik at de var akkurat tunge nok til at han kunne arrangere dem på gallerigulvet uten å trenge assistanse.

Som pedagog satte Albers praktiske øvelser med enkle og billige materialer i fokus. Største betydning hadde kanskje den forståelse Albers klarte å skape hos studentene av sammenhengen mellom materialegenskaper og form. Elevenes undersøkelser av materialer som papir, ståltråd, plast og sand som utgangspunkt for tredimensjonal form, finner vi gjenklang i hos 50- og 60-tallets amerikanske kunstnere fra Robert Rauschenberg til Eva Hesse. I sin utforskning av farger i kombinasjon med enkle geometriske grunnformer bygget han ikke bare opp under konkret maleri omkring 1950, men inspirerte senere også Op Art-bevegelsen, og popkunsten i dens bruk av enkel geometri i kombinasjon med typografi. I nyere tid gjenfinner vi Albers' arbeid med fargens materialitet som en viktig problemstilling hos Robert Ryman og Sean Scully.

Idealet ved Bauhaus var middelalderens bygghytte, og den kollektive bestrebelse mot felles mål. Der middelalderen satte Guds hus i sentrum, satte det moderne samfunnet den profane arkitekturen i sentrum, med idealer om et bygg som tok opp i seg elementer fra alle kunstarter. Derfor ble Albers den perfekte lærer ved institusjoner som ikke oppfattet kunstsystemet som et hierarkisk ordnet system med billedkunsten på topp, men som var mer opptatt av samspillet mellom produkter formet av den samme vilje til form, enten det var en dørmatte, en tekopp, et fotografi eller et maleri. Interessant nok har Albers i de senere årene fått en sterkere posisjon som designer og fotograf. Det er derfor synd at fotografen Albers ikke er bredere presentert i utstillingen. Hans ujålete fotografi i nysaklig stil er preget av den samme nøkternheten og håndverksmessige soliditeten som alt annet han gjorde.

Albers' kunst er visuell kommunikasjon på det mest effektive. Det oppnår han gjennom å gi avkall på alle digresjoner som kan føre blikket bort fra verkets form og tekniske bearbeiding. En aldrende museumsgjest bringes tilbake til undervisningen i form og farge ledet av entusiastiske og progressive formingslærere på 60-tallet. Behovet for optimal utnytting av materialer i en materialknapp etterkrigstid og idealet om funksjonell og ren form, har i dag flyttet over fra brukskunst og sløyd til industriproduksjon. Albers var en forløper for dette. Forhåpentligvis blir man en bedre og mer selektiv kunde hos kunstsenterets nabo, IKEA, etter denne utstillingen.

Albers' mest kjente elev, Robert Rauschenberg, hyllet Albers for et inkluderende kunstsyn som ikke dyrket en enkelt kunstart innenfor et hierarkisk ordnet system. Dette poenget blir dessverre borte i monteringen på Henie Onstad. Den rene presentasjonen i beste MoMA-ånd, med informative, men knapt formulerte tekstpaneler, skaper inntrykk av Albers som et isolert geni. Hans styrke lå tvert imot i at han inngikk i et interessant nettverk der kunst, kunsthåndverk, design og arkitektur var i fruktbart samspill, og der han spilte en viktig rolle nettopp i kraft av sin allsidighet.

Utstillingen er lagt til Prismasalene, som med sin utforming står for helt andre idealer enn de kunstneren selv hadde. Den organiske og ekspressive arkitekturen er ikke noe ideelt miljø for Albers' beherskede kunst. Veggene bildene henger på er som en skjerm som brettes ut og inn, med det resultat at blikket streifer omkring og går på skrå. Albers' kunst motsetter seg dette omstreifende blikket. Den krever at man stanser opp og konsentrerer seg om ett og ett bilde. De perfekte omgivelser for denne kunsten er i grunnen oppholdsrommene i den enkle og stilrene arkitekturen de ideelt sett skulle inngå i. Deres plass er i et slikt gesamtkunstwerk.


Josef Albers
Scherbe ins Gitterbild (Shards in Screen), ca. 1921
glass, wire, and sheet metal
14 × 11 3/4 in. (35.6 × 29.8 cm)

Miró-Albers, a Posthumous Meeting

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition Josef Albers / Joan Miró: Ardor en la Mirada (Josef Albers/Joan Miró:The Thrill of Seeing), at the Fundació Pilar y Joan Miró, Palma, 22 May–9 November 2014. The review was published in L'Echo on July 23, 2014. The original French is below.

In the suburbs of Palma de Mallorca, where a few decades ago there was nothing but mountains and olive trees, the Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation is now being constructed. Behind the gate, Figure, 1969 and Figure and Bird, 1968, two bronze statues by the Catalan artist, welcome the visitor. The bougainvilleas and the belles-de-nuit waver in the slight breeze. The sun is radiant, the sky carefree, and the sea limpid. Maternité, a bronze sculpture from 1969, guards the entrance to the museum. On the inside, and for the first time, two legends of modern art, Joan Miró and Josef Albers, are publicly exhibited together.

"When I saw the works by Miró that were exhibited here, I was struck by the visual similarities between them and those of Josef Albers. There was no historical justification for this combination, but we had to do an exhibition that presented the two artists side by side!" explained Nicholas Fox-Weber, director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. A little more than a year later, The Thrill of Seeing, two artists who probably never met, living thousands of kilometers from one another, opposite and yet close, have begun a posthumous conversation through the intermediary of their creation.

Different yet Similar

At first glance, the styles and personalities of Josef Albers and Joan Miró seem at odds with one another. Josef Albers' geometric rigor, desire for control, and juxtaposition of colors. Miró's free stroke, more playful canvases, and color contrasts. The reluctance to probe one's emotions versus the free exploration and expression of a personal universe. The intellect and the rational versus spontaneity and impulsiveness.

Still, these differences conceal many similarities.

"Miró and Albers were both artists who investigated the eternal and the universal. They had a love of life and they were also fascinated by colors, shapes, and materials," Nicholas Fox Weber explained. And Elvira Camará, the Director of the Miró Foundation, continued, "They had a very similar approach and way of seeing things and life. They were wild about nature, were great collectors of objects, were fascinated by ancient cultures. Both of them sought to achieve maximum expressiveness with a minimum of means, and they loved to explore and experiment."

A Visual Dialog

Far from arranging the pieces in chronological order, by period, or by style, the curator of the exhibit preferred to follow the visual dialog that is naturally established among the works.

To help the visitors discover or rediscover the artists from another angle, and to encourage them to develop their own vision, he also decided not to place any legend next to the 200 pieces on display. They are presented bare, without title or paternity. And if at first there is hardly any hesitation about who created what, eventually doubt begins to enter the mind. Miró Albers – Albers Miró, the dividing lines become blurred. "Josef used to say that you had to provoke people. That's what you do. People have a tendency to catalog artists, to put them into boxes. Albers comes out of the boxes and reaches much more general values," adds Nicholas Fox Weber.

Bringing Albers into Miró's world and Miró into Albers' world changes the experience and the perception of the work, transcending the familiar, theory, and classifications. The experience allows Albers' works to take on the ebullient energy of Miró's, as well as the Spanish painter's fame with a broader audience. It also allows Miró's works to appear in a different light, in other colors.

Miró-Albers, la Rencontre Posthume

Dans la banlieue de Palma de Majorque, là où il y a quelques décennies il n'y avait que montagnes et oliviers, s'érige aujourd'hui la fondation Pilar et Joan Miró. Derrière le portail, Personnage, 1969 et Personnage et oiseau, 1968", deux statues en bronze de l'artiste catalan, accueillent le visiteur. Les bougainvilliers et les belles-de-nuit frémissent sous la brise légère. Le soleil est radieux, le ciel sans chagrin et la mer limpide. Maternité, une sculpture en bronze de 1969, garde l'entrée du musée. À l'intérieur, et pour la première fois, deux légendes de l'art moderne, Joan Miró et Josef Albers, sont montrées ensemble au public.

"Lorsque j'ai vu les oeuvres de Miró qui étaient exposées ici, j'ai été frappé par les similitudes visuelles entre celles-ci et celles de Josef Albers. Il n'y avait aucune justification historique à ce rapprochement mais il fallait faire une exposition présentant les deux artistes côte à côte!", raconte Nicholas Fox-Weber, directeur de la fondation Josef et Anni Albers. Un peu plus d'un an plus tard, The Thrill of Seeing (L'ivresse de voir), deux artistes qui ne se sont probablement jamais rencontrés, vivant à des milliers de kilomètres l'un de l'autre, opposés mais proches, entrent en conversation posthume par l'intermédiaire de leur création.

Différents et semblables

À première vue, les styles et personnalités de Josef Albers et de Joan Miró apparaissent antagoniques. La rigueur géométrique, le désir de contrôle et la juxtaposition de couleur de Josef Albers. Le trait libre, des toiles plus ludiques et le contraste des couleurs de Miró. La réticence à sonder et à dévoiler ses émotions versus la libre exploration et expression d'un univers personnel. L'intellect et le rationnel versus le spontané et l'impulsif.

Ces différences cachent cependant de nombreuses similitudes.

"Miró et Albers étaient tous deux des artistes qui s'interrogeaient sur ce qui est éternel et universel. Ils avaient un amour de la vie et étaient aussi fascinés par les couleurs, les formes et les matériaux", explique Nicholas Fox Weber. Et Elvira Camará, Directrice de la Fondation Miró, de poursuivre: "Ils avaient une approche et une manière de voir les choses et la vie très similaires. Ils étaient fous de nature, grands collectionneurs d'objets, fascinés par les cultures anciennes. Tous deux cherchaient à atteindre une expressivité maximale avec un minimum de moyens et adoraient explorer et expérimenter."

Dialogue visuel

Loin de disposer les pièces dans un ordre chronologique, par période ou par style, le commissaire de l'exposition a préféré suivre le dialogue visuel s'établissant naturellement entre les oeuvres.

Afin d'aider les visiteurs à découvrir ou à redécouvrir les artistes sous un autre angle et afin de les inciter à développer leur propre vision, il a également décidé de ne pas mettre de légende à côté des 200 pièces exposées. Celles-ci sont présentées nues, sans titre ni paternité. Et si au départ il n'y a guère d'hésitation entre ce qui est de l'un et de l'autre, en fin de parcours, le doute commence à gagner les esprits. Miró Albers – Albers Miró, les frontières s'estompent. "Josef disait qu'on devait provoquer. C'est ce qu'on fait. Les gens ont tendance à cataloguer les artistes, à les mettre dans des cases. Albers sort de ces cases et touche à des valeurs bien plus générales", poursuit Nicholas Fox Weber.

Amener Albers dans le monde de Miró et Miró dans le monde d'Albers change l'expérience et la perception de l'oeuvre, transcendant le connu, la théorie et les classifications. L'expérience permet aux oeuvres d'Albers d'acquérir l'énergie débordant de celles de Miró, mais aussi la notoriété du peintre espagnol auprès d'un public plus large. Elle permet également aux oeuvres de Miró de se dévoiler sous un autre éclairage, sous d'autres couleurs.


Josef Albers
Study for Airy Center, ca. 1940
oil and graphite on blotting paper

Albers and Miró at Palma de Mallorca

This is a review of the exhibition Josef Albers/Joan Miró: The Thrill of Seeing, at the Fundació Pilar y Joan Miró, Mallorca 22 May–21 September 2014. The review was published in The Financial Times on 18 July 2014.

In 1968, Josef Albers, the artist known for his explorations into colour—nesting squares within squares—pulled a feature out of the July 26 edition of Time magazine. "Miró!?!" he wrote in red pen over a column of death notices that faced the beginning of the three-page article about the Catalan artist. No one knows whether the scrawl represented amazed delight at seeing Miró celebrated, or disapproval: the two never met, in spite of both having completed impressive murals for the Walter Gropius-designed Harvard Graduate Center in 1959.

"I used to talk to Josef about lots of different artists," says Nicholas Fox Weber, who was close to the German émigré until his death in 1976, and has been executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut since 1979. "He loved Mondrian; Kandinsky was really important. But we didn't discuss Miró."

Such selectivity was typical of the man: according to Weber, Albers – a dedicated educator at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale – could even be tricky about successful ex-students. "I can't remember everyone who's passed through," he would say when asked, as he frequently was, about Robert Rauschenberg.

Now, however, Weber has – post­humously – introduced the German émigré who ended his days in Connecticut to the Catalan who abandoned the Spanish mainland in 1950, seeking greater isolation in Mallorca. He has put on an exhibition at the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Palma de Mallorca that juxtaposes the work of both men: at moments, the siting of an Albers next to a complementary Miró makes a cool "Homage to the Square" seem to bounce right out of its frame, while a colour will emerge from the Miró that hitherto went largely unnoticed. Albers' red-penned rendition of Miró's name appears on the back of the exhibition catalogue.

Weber's relationship with Albers was one born entirely of chance. They met via an acquaintance whom Weber made at a New Hampshire tennis camp, when he was still an art history student at Columbia in New York in the late 1960s. Later, at Albers' funeral in 1976, a quiet affair attended by just eight or nine people, collector Lee Eastman (Linda MacCartney's father) suggested that Weber keep an eye on Albers' wife Anni and the Albers archive. Eastman, Weber explains, was a keen Albers collector. "He had Josef's work all up the stairs and de Kooning in the living room. I think that's the only time I've seen those two artists' work together."

The Palma de Mallorca exhibition came about in a similarly spontaneous way when Weber was contacted a couple of years ago by Elvira Cámara Lopez, director of the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró. She had read Weber's provocative biography of flamboyant Polish painter Balthus (it undid many Balthus myths, from his supposed aristocratic birth onwards), and she had been intrigued by a description of a portrait that Balthus did of Miró and his daughter. Their subsequent rendezvous ended with idea of bringing the subject of his foundation to meet the subject of hers.

It's hard not to be charmed by the Miró campus, on a hill in the Cala Mayor quarter, looking down over the beautiful bay of Palma, although the view is tainted by the rampant development that raged through this part of the island in the 1970s. Opened in 1992, and designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, its interior has an almost ecclesiastically solemn air; light is filtered through concrete louvres and alabaster panels; steep ramps connect galleries in a continuous winding route; low windows pull the eye towards the pools and gardens outside – their calming presence helps to keep the bad buildings at a distance.

Next to the foundation is the studio, designed in 1959 by Miró's great friend, Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert. The painter worked here until his death on Christmas Day 1983. The building is in effect a portrait of the artist, its sharply undulating roofline suggesting Miró's own trademark birds. Inside, visitors can still see how Miró worked, the cane chair on which he sat (even if the framed pictures arranged across the floor amount to set-dressing rather than reality). Then they can carry on up the hill to the house Miró later acquired, a windowless hulk from the 17th century, where he drew on the walls and lived simply.

While this is clearly Miró's world, Albers more than holds his own. "Albers is more theoretical and Miró is more visceral, but that's what's so exciting – to see these two huge individuals coincide," says Weber, who has found pairings in both subject matter and form. One wall is hung with dozens of small squiggly sketches; even experts have found it impossible to work out which is the work of which artist. Both men were masters of line.

A never-before-displayed sketch called "Family" by Miró (showing two adults and a child) is placed next to two fragile Albers prints from 1934. An ex-boyfriend of Anni's who went on to become a psychotherapist interpreted its black and white interlocking circles as a mother, father and four children, or Albers' own family.

Weber is no stranger to provocative pairings. In 2005, he matched Albers and Morandi at the Museo Morandi in Bologna. "Morandi's vessels and Albers' squares are doing the same thing," says Weber, referring to their sense of careful containment. "It was a very quiet sensibility, putting subtle greys next to subtle greys." Then in 2008, he brought Albers to the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis (Matisse's birthplace in northern France). "I saw them both as happy vibrant colourists from grim northern places," says Weber, who regularly visits the Albers Museum in Josef's home town of Bottrop. "Matisse wrote a lot about using colour to convey emotion, and I believe colour is a vehicle for emotion with Albers too and certainly is with Miró." In Palma, there was a concern that Miró's grandson, still very much involved with the artist's estate, might disapprove. "But he looked at that wall of drawings and said, 'It's pure poetry'," Cámara recalls.

While the assumption may be that the two are polar opposites – north and south, control over collision, psychological observation over the power of the subconscious – their shared concern with connections, materials, colour and womblike imagery prevails. Both were masters of many media and were driven by a desire for experimentation and resolution. Some of the examples here are ragged and frayed – a Miró held together with Sellotape; a hastily daubed Albers in messy pinks and pale browns. A bizarre collage by Albers made using remnants of glass sits on one wall, glinting in the light. "I would like to engrave something on glass, and design something on it in colour," Miró once wrote. It's one of few things he didn't achieve.

"If I'd been doing, say, an Arshile Gorky show, the last two years wouldn't have been half so much fun," says Weber. "But I've been dealing with two of the art world's greatest celebrators." Who knows what would have happened if they really had met in person?


Josef Albers
untitled abstraction, ca. 1938
watercolor on blotting paper

Albers Conquers Palma

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition Josef Albers: Proceso y grabado (Josef Albers: Process and Printmaking), at the Museu Fundación Juan March, Palma, 2 April–28 June 2014. The review was published in Diario de Mallorca on May 30, 2014. The original Spanish is below.

Two exhibitions devoted to the artist held concurrently in the City during the upcoming months. With 200 pieces, the Fundación Miró links the work of the German-born American artist with the Catalan genius.

Before the gates to the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, the presence of a bus announces the arrival of visiting schoolchildren. The children are preparing themselves for a simultaneous immersion in the square world of Josef Albers and the organic universe of the Catalan genius. Two artists face to face, engaged in a dialogue since May 22.

The bus has not yet unloaded, and there are still a few drawings left behind in a corner of the exhibition space by an earlier group of students who prepared them as a class exercise. And a couple visiting as tourists are taking their leave from the receptionist, thanking her for the opportunity to view a unique show titled Ardor de la mirada / The Thrill of Seeing. The museum above the Cala Mayor beach is bustling with activity. In the various exhibition spaces at the museum—the Espai Estrella, the Espai Cúbic, the Espai Zero ("Star," "Cubic," and "Zero" spaces) and the main corridor—around fifty visitors are discovering the unexpected similarities between the apparently very different work of Albers and Miró.

"Working together with the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Nicholas Fox Weber, we realized that, in addition to both artists' having coincided at the Harvard University Graduate Center in order to create murals there (though they never met personally), there were other very illuminating aesthetic and philosophical points they shared in common," explains the director of the museum in Palma, Elvira Cámara, who already had occasion to work on Albers's oeuvre when she was at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. The initial idea for the joint project, she adds, developed around a year and a half ago when Cámara sought out a book on Balthus, written by Fox Weber, with a chapter on Miró. "One of the museum's board members knew him, I contacted him, and since I had to be in Madrid, we met there," the director recalls. "At that point, I sent him photographs of the Fundació, and he even visited the museum to see the spaces, and we began to plan our collaboration on a joint exhibition based on the holdings of both institutions," she explains.

The guiding idea behind the show (with 120 works by Albers and ninety by Miró), became logically apparent, given that both artists shared a range of common interests though they were born and lived in different countries. They were, however, certainly contemporaries. Both were born at the end of the nineteenth century, five years apart from each other, and both were invited in 1950 by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, to create works for Harvard.

Regarding those common interests, one notes first of all that nature fascinated both artists. Not in vain, in the first space in the show (which is organized not chronologically but according to the works' characteristics), we find a piece by the German-American artist made out of leaves and another by the Catalan artist that represents the figure of a fish. "In any case, the works in which Albers approached drawing as figurative representation are not numerous," Carmen Colom, an expert at the museum, explains. (There are also an owl and some frogs by Albers.)

The expressive use of color, even of very a similar palette, is another path shared by both artists. Colom remarks that "Albers is more methodical in his investigation of color; he studied the interconnectedness of color and form and how color had a bearing on the perception of dimension"—so much so that the artist's color tests (which one can examine in various display cases at the exhibition) carry annotations about the density, the type, and the numbering of the pigments he used. In addition to a passion for draftsmanship, both artists shared an interest in the primitive or the primeval. "This is related to the forces of nature, the earth, and primitive cultures. Miró was deeply fascinated by indigenous art and Albers collected Pre-Columbian objects; it is not by chance that his brick mural at Harvard was inspired in archeological masonry," Cámara explains. Almost at the end of the exhibition, in another showcase, there are objects on display that accompanied the two painters throughout their lives. The similarities between these objects are such that the viewer finds it a challenge to distinguish which belonged to Albers and which to Miró. The same is true of a series of drawings that could easily be attributed to either artist. "Instead of labels, we have placed a color-coded diagram on the wall to identify the works by the German-American (orange) or the Catalan (blue)," Colom points out.

A commitment to social issues also links the two. Albers fled Germany after the Nazi takeover (his wife, Anni, was Jewish), and Miró was likewise deeply engaged with the issues during the era in which he lived, a fact marvelously reflected in the magnificent exhibition L'escala de l'evasió / The Ladder of Escape, held at the Fundació Miró en Barcelona in 2011. "As for their personal lives, both artists also led tranquil lives. Each remained married to their respective wives, and they were a constant support and point of reference for their husbands," Cámara notes.

It is beyond a doubt that both artists knew of each other's existence. They shared at least one friend in common, Gropius, and a document survives that corroborates Albers's interest in Miró. Found among his archives was a page from Time magazine from July 7, 1968, with the word "Miró" in the American's handwriting and an arrow pointing to the opposite side of the page, where one discovers an article about the Catalan genius.

Albers conquista Palma

Dos exposiciones sobre el artista coinciden en Ciutat en los próximos meses. La Fundación Miró conecta a través de 200 piezas la obra del pintor americano de origen alemán con la del genio catalán.

A las puertas de la Fundación Pilar i Joan Miró, un autocar presagia la visita de escolares. Los niños se preparan para sumergirse simultáneamente en el mundo cuadrado de Josef Albers y en el universo orgánico del genio catalán. Dos artistas puestos frente a frente, en diálogo, desde el pasado día 22.

Antes del desembarco colegial, otro grupo de estudiantes ha dejado olvidados en dos recuerdos de la exposición algunos dibujos abordados como ejercicios de clase. Y una pareja de turistas se despide de la recepcionista y agradece la visita a una muestra única titulada Ardor en la mirada. El museu de Cala Mayor está activo: cerca de cincuenta personas recorrían ayer el Espai Estrella, Cúbic, Zero corredor del centro artístico descubriendo las similitudes inesperadas entre la obra de Albers y la de Miró, aparentemente muy alejadas.

"Trabajando de manera conjunta con el director de la Fundación Josef y Anni Albers, Nicholas Fox Weber, nos dimos cuenta de que, además de coincidir ambos artistas, sin llegar a conocerse personalmente, en la Harvard University Graduate Center para realizar sendos murales, había en común otros puntos estéticos y de pensamiento muy reveladores" expone la directora de la Fundación palmesana, Elvira Cámara, quien ya trabajó con la obra de Albers durante su etapa en el Reina Sofía de Madrid. El germen del proyecto conjunto, explica, surgió aproximadamente hace año y medio a partir de la búsqueda por parte de Cámara de un libro sobre Balthus -escrito por Fox Weber- con un capítulo sobre Miró. "Uno de los patronos del museo le conocía, me puse en contacto con él y como tenía que ir a Madrid nos citamos allí," refiere la directora. "A partir de entonces, yo le envié fotos de la Fundación e incluso vino aquí para ver los espacios y comenzamos a planteamos trabajar en una exposición conjunta con los fondos de ambas instituciones," continúa.

El hilo conductor de la muestra (con 120 obras de Albers y unas 90 de Miró) se fue manifestando de manera lógica, habida cuenta de que ambos pintores presentaron un abanico de intereses comunes a pesar de haber nacido y vivido en países diferentes. Eso sí, fueron contemporáneos; ambos nacieron a finales del siglo XIX con una diferencia de un lustro, y fueron invitados en 1950 por Gropius, el fundador de la Bauhaus, a intervenir en Harvard.

En cuanto a los intereses comunes señalados, hay que apuntar, en primer lugar, que ambos artistas sentían fascinación por la naturaleza. No en balde, en el primer ámbito del recorrido -ordenado según las características de las obras y no por cronología- es posible encontrar un pieza del germano-estadounidense (realizada a partir de hojas) y otra del catalán que abordan la figura de un pez. "De todos modos, no son numerosas las obras -hay un búho y unas ranas- en las que Albers abordó figurativamente el dibujo,," explica la técnica del museo palmesano Carmen Colom.

El uso del color con una intención expresiva, incluso de una paleta muy similar, es otro de los caminos comunes tomados por ambos artistas. "Albers era más metódico, más investigador del mismo; estudio la interconexión entre el color y la forma y como este incidia en la manera de ver las dimensiones", comenta Colom. Tanto es así que durante el recorrido es posible contemplar en varias vitrinas las pruebas de color que realizaba, con anotaciones sobre la densidad, el tipo y la numeración de los pigmentos. Ademas de la pasión por el dibujo, ambos artistas comparten gusto por lo migenio. "Esto esta relacionado con la fuerza de la naturaleza, la tierra y las culturas primitivas. A Miró le intereso mucho el arte indígena y Albers coleccionaba directamente objetos precolombinos, no en balde su mural con Iadrillos para Harvard se inspira en los sillares arqueológicos", explica Camara. Casi al término de la muestra, en otro aparador, se exhiben piezas que acompañaron a estos dos pintores durante toda su vida. El parecido del muestrario es tal que incluso es complicado para el espectador distinguir que objetos son de Albers y cuales de Mrio. Lo mismo sucede con una sucesión de dibujos de ambos cuya autoría podria ser intercambiable. "En lugar de cartelas, se ha colocado una letrero con un croquis de la pared en el que se puede identificar según el color si la obra es del germano-americano (naranja) o del catalán (azul)", señala Colom.

El compromiso social también les hermana: Albers huyó de Alemania tras la ocupación nazi (su mujer Anni era judía) y Miró se comprometió con el tiempo que le tocó vivir, un hecho estupendamente reflejado en la magnífica explosión La escalera de la evasión inaugurada en 2011 en la Fundacion de Barcelona. "En su vida personal, ambos llevaron también una vida tranquila: estuvieron casados con la misma mujer y ellas fueron un apoyo y una referencia", apunta Cámara.

De lo que no cabe duda es que el uno sabía de la existencia del otro. Tenían al menos un amigo en común, Gropius, y existe un documento que corrobora el interés de Albers por Miró. En sus archivos fue hallada una página del Time (con fecha del 26/07/1968) con la palabra "Miró" manuscrita por el americano y una flecha: en el lado opuesto del folio se habia publicado un artículo sobre el genio catalán.


Josef Albers
Stufen (Steps), 1931
sandblasted opaque flashed glass
16 3/8 x 21 1/2 in. (40.6 x 53.3 cm)

Square Dance

This is a review of the exhibition Josef Albers: Black and White, at Waddington Custot Galleries, 11 Cork Street, W1, London 6 May–4 June 2014. The review was published in The Spectator on May 24, 2014.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) is best known for his long engagement with the square, which he painted in exquisite variation more than a thousand times. A German-American painter, he trained in Berlin and Munich before enrolling at the Bauhaus (the leading modernist art and design school) in 1920. He was a student there for three years and a teacher for ten (longer than anyone else), his chosen craft was stained glass, and his teaching ranged from typography to furniture. In 1933 he moved to America and began to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Among his students was Robert Rauschenberg, who acknowledged Albers as 'the most important teacher I've ever had'. Albers's work combined Catholic mysticism with precise method, the cerebral with the sensual, in a deeply engaging way. His apparently sever geometries grow ever more human as you get to know them.

Albers was obsessed with colour, and employed in his paintings hues as bright as the tints of the autumn leaves he told his students to collect. But his singularity as a colourist was built upon the firm foundations of his understanding of black and white and the tonal distinctions that arise from their juxtaposition. This exhibition, the brain-child of Leslie Waddington, a long-time Albers admirer, examines the radical black-and-white work from the artist's earliest extant drawing (a view from his window of a church in Stadtlohn, Germany, dated 1911) to oil paintings of the late 1960s. His art, as his teaching, was grounded in the analysis of space, form and colour as visual phenomena. If that sounds arid, his work is actually dramatic and expressive, and full of personality. He loved structure but also valued intuition, and believed that our experience of colour is qualified by context. In the end, what he wanted was for us to see more intensely.

One of the features that continues to attract and hold my attention in Albers's work is the mixture of the hard-edged and the brushy. This is particularly apparent in the just off-square large painting entitled 'Movement in Gray' (1939), in which roaring diagonals play off against smaller triangles, enclosed within a brushy black form. The pale internal shapes are subtly modulated in grey and off-white, but the brushiness is misleading. Albers habitually applied paint with a palette knife, with which he brought his colours into alignment: they touche, but do not overlap (except in the silk screen prints he made), and far from being solid they waver and hover. Unexpectedly, Albers turns out to be a master of haloes. To the left of this painting hang tow landscape-format studies from the Kinetic series, the wobbly edges of their forms deliciously vibrant, their dirty whites an absolute virtue. On the opposite wall are three sandblasted opaque flashed glass pieces, two of them of house interiors. The third features two sets of steps, folding and unfolding every which way through space, in a striped dynamic faintly reminiscent of deckchair canvas.

The beguiling distribution of space in Albers's pictures is much to do with his use of paint and line in close collaboration. Although his work is very linear, it is seldom graphic - it evokes rather than describes. The lines are there to anchor form but also to allow the spirit to soar beyond their confines. The square within a square within a square is not a reductionist progression but a means of invoking infinity, just as colour is not definition so much as motion. In the main gallery space hang three small studies for the 'Homage to the Square' series. These are grouped together, followed by a gap, caesura, hiatus or pause. This perfectly pitched and phrased empty passage of wall intervenes before the eye reaches the larger and more majestic 'Homage to the Square:"Half Past"' (1966). This inspired piece of hanging beats gently at the very heart of the show.

On the adjacent walls are more 'Homage' paintings and three 'Variant/Adobe' pictures. These rectilinear images are like primitive temple façades, or the facias of old-fashioned wireless sets, or indeed stylised masks. Again, note, the precise imprecisions: the variants of width and interval, the seemingly overlapping areas and the hand-drawn lines.

In the back room are nine small colour paintings to remind us what Albers could do with brighter and more obvious hues. My favorite is 'Variant/Adobe Red, Violet, Rose around Orange', though all here vibrate in thrilling colour combinations. Look, for instance, at the vivid blue, warm grey-brown and claret/magenta of another surprising 'Homage to the Square'. A side room contains machine engravings on black vinylite mounted on board, lucid structural constellations in white and black lines and varied texture. These are wonderfully crisp and tonic, so visually satisfying, ludic but serene. In this area of the gallery are some of Albers's own source photographs, some of them taken on his many trips to Mexico. Most have a strong linear thrust: railway tracks, twiggy saplings in the snow, a stairway, sand ribbed and rippled by the tide. Here, too, is the painting for the sandblasted glass 'Steps' mentioned earlier, and a series of graph-paper drawings called 'Graphic Tectonic'. Finally a group of six Arp-like treble-clef paintings in gouache on paper that I'm sure Patrick Caulfield (another Waddington favourite) would have liked. It's an exhibition of impressive range given its self-imposed limits.

I have been looking again at the 2006 commercial edition of Albers's beautiful book Formulation: Articulation, published by Thames & Hudson with an illuminated text by T.G. Rosenthal. It demonstrates the thoughts and ideas of an artist's lifetime through a series of brilliantly modulated propositions. Albers also write rather well and formulated his philosophy thus:

'The origin of art:The discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect.

'The content of art: Visual formulation of our reaction to life.

'The measure of art: The ratio of effort to effect.

'The aim of art: Revelation and evocation of vision.'

The exhibition at Waddington Custot is of museum quality ad deserves the serious (and inevitably delighted) attention of anyone interested in the visual arts. It is accompanied by an elegant hardback catalogue replete with essay by the doyen of Albers studies Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. His text is an affectionate tribute to Leslie Waddington, larded with useful comments and observations about Albers. He calls the subject of the exhibition 'the vast, paradisiacal territory afforded by black and white when they are treated by a master'. Not to be missed.


Interaction of Color App for iPad

2013 George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award

Interaction of Color by Josef Albers (App for iPad) published by Yale University Press in 2013, was awarded the 35th Annual George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award at the Society's annual conference held in Washington, D.C., May 1-5, 2014. Established in 1980 to honor the memory of premier New York City art book dealer and publisher George Wittenborn, the award is given each year to North American art publications which represent the highest standards of content, documentation, layout and format in art publishing.

Interaction of Color was created by Josef Albers fifty years ago as a classroom teaching tool and it continues to be used in color courses. This app provides a new way explore color and Josef Albers' ideas. The Wittenborn Award Committee members described this publication as 'transformational,' an excellent model for present-day art publishing that takes advantage of interactive media. The archival and documentary videos serve to explicate the artist's ideas and place the original publication in a scholarly context. In addition, the format appropriately and aptly builds on the Interaction of Color's teaching mission, bringing it to a contemporary audience.

"It is exciting that for the 35th year of presenting the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award, the Art Libraries Society of North America has selected its first electronic publication as the winner," said Gregory P. J. Most, President of ARLIS/NA. "The transformation of Josef Albers' classic Interaction of Color from a printed book into a mobile, multimedia app that maintains the intellectual exploration of color theory will appeal to a new and wide-ranging audience."

John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press says that "Yale University Press is honored to receive this prestigious award from the Art Libraries Society of North America which recognizes our innovation in art publishing. In particular, we are pleased to receive its first recognition of a digitally enhanced artbook! We hope this project serves as a guide for future art publications that seek to inspire, inform and delight artists, designers, students and scholars."

The members of the 2013 Annual George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award Committee are Janine Henri, UCLA (chair); Leslie Abrams, University of California at San Diego; Laurel Bliss, San Diego State University; Lisa Schattman, Design Institute of San Diego; and Ruth Wallach, University of Southern California.

Josef Albers
Study for a Variant, ca. 1947
oil and pencil on blotting paper

The Museu Fundación Juan March reveals the creative process of Josef Albers, poet of color and form.

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition Josef Albers: Proceso y grabado (Josef Albers: Process and Printmaking), at the Museu Fundación Juan March, Palma, 2 April–28 June 2014. The review was published in Diario de Mallorca on April 3, 2014. The original Spanish is below.

Yesterday the museum in Palma opened an exhibition of graphic works, sketches, and preparatory drawings by the German-born American abstract painter tied to the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College.

While in Madrid there is an exhibition of the painting of Josef Albers (1888-1976), in Palma his graphic work is on display, revealing the creative process of this German-born American abstract painter: two simultaneous monographic shows—Spain's first ever devoted to Albers—in the Fundación Juan March's two museums and produced in close conjunction with the American foundation devoted to this artist and designer, known for his colorful Homage to the Square paintings.

Though the painter's major works are not being exhibited in Palma, visitors can, thanks to the drawings and sketches at the museum on Calle San Miguel, witness "a working process through which a painter creates the rules of a language that he himself invents and constructs by means of experimentation, breaking with the rules of received custom," observes the Director of Exhibitions at the Fundación Juan March, Manuel Fontán. Works from the 1930s and 40s have been assembled in the two first rooms of the building's second floor, presenting Albers's beginnings in the field of drawing, works that above all seek to capture nature, with paradigmatic examples of rabbits portrayed in sketches and lithography. In his zeal to advance further, he turned his interest towards natural organic or biomorphic forms before moving on to new forms characterized by their own internal meaning now free of any reference to the external world. In order to better illustrate this shift, Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator of the Albers Foundation and co-curator of this exhibition with Fontán, draws attention to a dry point engraving that constitutes a reinterpretation of maternity based on the religious iconography of the Virgin and Child, an image that ends up transformed in another abstract drawing that the painter titled Alpha, like the letter of the Greek alphabet. Albers's next step would be to devote himself to experimentation, still in black and white, with geometry.

The second part of the exhibition (1950s and 60s), in the next two rooms, leads the viewer to the world of color and the square, the two pillars on which the German artist constructed his pictorial poetry. How did he achieve such control over color, an element absent in his earliest work? Danilowitz explains how dissatisfied the painter was with his first works in color, works he created before arriving at the Bauhaus, where he was first a student and then a teacher in various workshops and where he began to paint on glass. "During those years he learned that color is what gives light to the work of art," the curator remarks. Once he had settled in the United States, Albers became interested in color as material with its own meaning. At the same time that he put this element in practice in his own painting, he began his work as a professor in the US with a focus precisely on explaining the application of pigments in art. One must recall that the German artist taught at the famous Black Mountain College, whose students included John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly, and then at Yale. As a result of that simultaneous process of learning and teaching, he published his essay, Interaction of Color.

In addition to being a great colorist, Albers was a great draftsman, according to Danilowitz. Her claim can be readily confirmed in the brilliant technique displayed in a drawing in the exhibition, dated 1973, when the artist was eighty-five.

Regarding Albers's output, Fontán emphasizes two primordial aspects for an understanding of his work. On the one hand, there is the profound economy applied to form: "He thought that the greatest effects could be achieved with austere means," in line with Mies van der Rohe's maxim that "less is more." And, secondly, there is Albers's respect for the manual work and craftsmanship involved in the making of art—an attitude of admiration that is perfectly summed up in the photograph that opens the show, in which we see Josef Albers gazing reverentially at one of his geometric prints.

La Juan March revela el proceso creativo de Albers, el poeta del color y de la forma.

El museo de Palma inauguró ayer una muestra de obra gráfica, bocetos y dibujos preparatorios del pintor abstracto norteamericano de origen alemán ligado a la Bauhaus y al Black Mountain College.

Mientras en Madrid está la pintura de Josef Albers (1888-1976), en Palma se muestra la obra gráfica y el proceso de creación de este pintor abstracto norteamericano de origen alemán. Un monográfico simultáneo en dos emplazamientos de la Juan March –el primero en España sobre el pintor– producido codo con codo con la fundación estadounidense del artista y diseñador, conocido por sus coloristas Homenajes al Cuadrado.

A pesar de no exhibirse en Palma las grandes piezas del pintor, el espectador podrá asistir gracias a los dibujos y bocetos del museo de la calle San Miguel "a un proceso de trabajo a través del cual un pintor crea las reglas de un lenguaje que él mismo inventa y construye por experimentación rompiendo las reglas heredadas", observa el director de exposiciones de la Juan March, Manuel Fontán. Así, en las dos primeras salas del segundo piso del inmueble se han agrupado las obras de los años 30 y 40, que abordan los comienzos de Albers con el dibujo, orientados sobre todo a plasmar la Naturaleza, con ejemplos paradigmáticos en los bocetos y la litografía de los conejos. En su afán por avanzar, su interés se desplazó a las formas orgánicas o biomórficas naturales, para después crear formas nuevas con significado en sí mismas, pero esta vez sin ningún referente en el mundo exterior. A fin de comprenderlo mejor, la conservadora jefe de la fundación Albers, Brenda Danilowitz, también comisaria de la exposición junto a Fontán, señala en la primera sala hacia un grabado a la punta seca de una maternidad reinterpretada a partir de la iconografía religiosa de la virgen y su hijo, una pieza que termina transformándose en otro dibujo que devuelve una forma abstracta a la que el pintor llamó Alpha, como la letra del alfabeto griego. El siguiente paso de Albers sería entregarse a la experimentación –aún en blanco y negro– con la geometría.

La segunda parte de la exposición (años 50 y 60), concentrada en las dos salas siguientes, abre al espectador al mundo del color y del cuadrado, los dos pilares sobre los que el alemán construyó su poesía pictórica. ¿Cómo alcanzó tal dominio del color, un elemento inexistente en su primera obra? Explica Danilowitz la insatisfacción que le produjeron al pintor sus primeros cuadros en color, obras ejecutadas antes de ingresar en la Bauhaus (donde fue alumno y maestro en diferentes talleres), escuela en la que empezó a pintar sobre cristal. "Durante esos años aprendió que el color es lo que da luz a la obra de arte", comenta la comisaria. Una vez instalado en Estados Unidos, Albers comenzó a interesarse en el color como material con sentido propio. Simultáneamente a la puesta en práctica de este elemento en su propia pintura, inició su labor de docente en el nuevo continente centrándose precisamente en explicar la aplicación de pigmentos en el arte. Hay que recordar que el alemán dio clases en el célebre Black Mountain College, con alumnos como John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg o Cy Twombly, y después en Yale. Fruto de esta simultaneidad entre propio aprendizaje y docencia, publicó en 1963 el ensayo La interacción del Color.

Además de gran colorista, según Danilowitz, Albers fue un gran dibujante, una afirmación comprobable a partir de la genial técnica desplegada en un dibujo de la exposición datado en 1973, cuando tenía 85 años.

Sobre su producción, Fontán destacó dos aspectos primordiales para comprender su trabajo. Por una parte, la profunda economía de la forma aplicada. "Él pensaba que se podían conseguir los máximos efectos con medios austeros" (en línea con el lema de Mies van der Rohe "menos es más"). Y en segundo lugar, su admiración y respeto por el trabajo manual y la artesanía del arte. Una admiración perfectamente resumida en la fotografía de la entrada a la muestra, donde puede verse a un Josef Albers en postura reverencial frente a uno de sus geométricos grabados.


Installation view, Josef Albers: Medios Minimos-Efecto Maximo (Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect)

Josef Albers: When Less is Much More

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition Josef Albers: Medios Minimos-Efecto Maximo (Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect), at the Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 28 March–6 July 2014. The review was published in ABC on March 30, 2014. The original Spanish is below.

"Less is more," pronounced Mies van der Rohe. One of his colleagues at the legendary Bauhaus, Josef Albers, made this maxim his own, applying it to his work as well as to his life: thus the title of the first retrospective exhibition in Spain devoted to this artist, organized by the Fundación Juan March in collaboration with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Medios mínimos, efecto máximo / Minimal Means, Maximum Effect. It constitutes a veritable declaration of intent. Albers purposefully opted for an austere economy of means in order to create a theoretical and practical corpus of great significance. His major legacy was to show how one could make the most of limited resources.

This is the thesis of the Fundación Juan March's new exhibition, which, running from today through July 6, will reveal the talent of Josef Albers (Westphalia, Germany, 1888–1976, Connecticut) with its one hundred-odd pieces on display. In this instance we can admire his work in isolation, for Anni and Josef Albers's work is often exhibited together, though it is proper to as highly distinctive personalities, and Anni specialized above all in textile and jewelry design.

One-man band of the avant-garde

Josef Albers, in contrast, covered many fields. A one-man band of the avant-garde, Albers was a painter, photographer, poet, designer, typographer, etc., and the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This retrospective begins with some of his first figurative drawings—almost summary sketches executed with a scant two or three strokes. Together with them there are examples of his exquisite paintings on glass. On occasion he would use pieces of glass he found discarded in refuse dumps or fragments of a broken bottle and, on others, costlier sandblasted glass that reveals geometrical patterns conveying a more powerful architectural impression. They seem like skyscrapers.

Albers did not begin to create paintings until he arrived in the United States in 1933. Part of his oeuvre, like his Adobes, betrays close links to Mexico, a country he and his wife visited many times, and Mexico's vibrant colors and colonial architecture are captured in many of in his creations. These works contrast with monochrome series that are also hanging in the galleries here: inkless, white intaglios or black linocuts.

Passion for color

One of Albers's great obsessions was color. "When I paint I think and see first and most—color. But color as movement," he would remark. He was particularly interested in how certain colors interacted with others. In fact, he was wont to indicate on the reverse of his works the exact tone he should use and in what quantity. He published a book titled Interaction of Color, in which he included examples of the curious experiments his students at Yale created. The first edition of the book is exhibited at the Fundación Juan March, as is his series of prints, Never Before, along with color studies displayed in glass cases.

The trajectory of the exhibition is interrupted by a space in which several of his furniture designs are on display, like his famous Model ti244 armchair, along with his photographs of trees, sand dunes, rivers, flights of stairs, and so forth, all of which share a common geometric vision. This section also includes his portraits of colleagues at the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer and Wassily Kandinsky, alongside works of their own that they gave to Albers.

Homages to the square

Albers devoted the last stage of his career to paying homage to the square. He created over 2000 works in the Homage to the Square series, in which specific colors appear to penetrate into others. At first they were multicolored squares, and later he experimented with all the shades in the spectral range of a single color. A broad selection of these paintings rounds out the exhibition. It includes excellent works on loan from the Metropolitan, the Beyeler Foundation, and elsewhere.

Albers's father, a housepainter, plumber, electrician, and carpenter, used to say that when you paint a door, you start at the center and work your way out so as to catch the drips and keep from getting your cuffs dirty. His son marked his words well.

The Fundación Juan March, which is also exhibiting graphic work by Albers at its two other venues, in Palma de Mallorca and Cuenca, has published on the occasion of this exhibition fifty-seven texts by Albers, twenty-six previously unpublished and fifty-three translated into Spanish for the first time. "To distribute material possessions is to divide them; to distribute spiritual possessions is to multiply them": Wise words from one of the greats of the twentieth century.

Josef Albers, cuando menos es mucho más.

La Fundación Juan March dedica la primera retrospectiva en España a este artista multidisciplinar y visionario

"Menos es más", promulgó Mies van der Rohe. Uno de sus colegas en la mítica Bauhaus, Josef Albers, hizo propia esta máxima y la aplicó tanto a su vida como a su trabajo. De ahí el título de la primera retrospectiva en España dedicada a este artista, organizada por la Fundación Juan March, en colaboración con la Josef & Anni Albers Foundation: Medios mínimos, efecto máximo. Toda una declaración de intenciones: eligió austera y voluntariamente la economía de medios para elaborar un corpus teórico y práctico de gran calado. Ese fue su gran legado: sacar el máximo partido usando recursos limitados.

Es la tesis de la nueva exposición de la Fundación Juan March, que, desde hoy y hasta el 6 de julio, despliega a través de un centenar de piezas el talento de Josef Albers (Westfalia, Alemania, 1888-Connecticut, Estados Unidos, 1976). En este caso admiramos su trabajo en solitario. A menudo se exhibe conjuntamente la obra del matrimonio Albers, pero es de justicia dedicarles muestras por separado, pues tienen personalidades bien diferenciadas. Anni se especializó sobre todo en diseño de textiles y joyas.

Hombre orquesta de las vanguardias

Josef Albers, en cambio, abarcó muchísimos campos. Hombre orquesta de las vanguardias (pintor, fotógrafo, poeta, diseñador, tipógrado...), fue el primer artista vivo en exponer en el Metropolitan Museum de Nueva York. Comienza la retrospectiva con algunos de sus primeros dibujos figurativos, apenas esbozados con dos o tres trazos. Junto a ellos, ejemplos de sus exquisitas pinturas sobre cristal. En ocasiones empleaba cristales recogidos en vertederos o fragmentos de una botella; en otras, vidrios esmerilados más costosos en los que se cuela la geometría y que tienen una carga arquitectónica muy fuerte. Semejan rascacielos.

Albers no comienza a pintar lienzos hasta que llega a Estados Unidos en 1933. Parte de sus obras está muy vinculada a México – como sus Adobes –, país al que él y su mujer viajaron en muchas ocasiones. Sus vivos colores y su arquitectura colonial quedaron plasmados en sus creaciones. Contrastan con series monocromas que cuelgan también en las salas: grabados sin tinta en blanco o vinilos negros recortados.

Pasión por el color

Una de las grandes obsesiones de Albers fue el color. "Cuando pinto pienso y veo ante todo color, pero color como movimiento", decía. Le interesaba especialmente cómo interactúan unos colores con otros. De hecho, en sus trabajos escribía en el reverso anotaciones sobre el tono exacto que debía utilizar y en qué cantidad. Publicó el libro Interacción del color, en el que incluía los curiosos experimentos que hacían sus alumnos de Yale. Se exhibe la edición príncipe. También su serie gráfica Never Before, así como estudios de color encerrados en vitrinas.

El recorrido se interrumpe con un espacio en el que se exhiben algunos de sus diseños de mobiliario (como su célebre silla 244) y cuelgan sus fotos de árboles, dunas, ríos, tramos de escaleras...siempre con una visión geométrica. También sus retratos de colegas en la Bauhaus, como Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Klee, Schlemmer y Kandinsky, así como obras que estos le regalaron.

Homenajes al cuadrado

La última etapa de su carrera la dedicó a homenajear al cuadrado. Hizo más de 2.000 obras de esta serie, en la que unos colores parecen penetrar en otros. Primero eran cuadrados multicolores, después experimentaba con todos los matices del espectro de un color. Una amplia selección de ellos cierra la muestra. Hay excelentes préstamos del Metropolitan, la Fundación Beyeler... Decía su padre – pintor de brocha gorda, fontanero, electricista, carpintero... – que "cuando se pinta una puerta hay que empezar por el centro e ir avanzando, porque de esta manera se controla el goteo y no se ensucia uno los puños". Su hijo tomó buena nota.

La Fundación March, que también llevará obras de Albers a sus otras dos sedes, Palma de Mallorca y Cuenca – en ambos casos será obra gráfica –, ha publicado para la ocasión 57 textos de Josef Albers (26 inéditos y 53 traducidos al español por primera vez). "Distribuir las posesiones materiales es dividirlas. Distribuir las posesiones espirituales es multiplicarlas". Palabras sabias de uno de los grandes del siglo XX.


Josef Albers
To Mitla, 1940
oil on masonite

Josef Albers: The Quiet Master

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition Josef Albers: Medios Minimos-Efecto Maximo (Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect), at the Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 28 March–6 July 2014. The review was published in El Cultural on March 28, 2014. The original Spanish is below.

The Fundación Juan March devotes a major exhibition to this abstract painter crucial for his experimentation with color and for his pedagogical work at the Bauhaus. Essential for an understanding of the twentieth century.

In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg posed before one of his White Paintings in the Stable Gallery in New York. He is wearing one of those typical suits from the fifties that always seem one size too large. He is seated on one of his sculptures, his hands delicately clasped over one of his knees—too delicately, perhaps. He gazes at the camera with boredom in his eyes, as if he were tired, weary of the Abstract Expressionist norm that prevailed in artistic circles at the time. That kind of gestural painting, with its loose, broad brushstrokes and dripping paint that revealed the individual behind it, had become a kind of perpetual background.

Cecil Beaton was well aware of this when he photographed models for Vogue, having them pose before the giant Pollocks that Betty Parsons was exhibiting in her gallery in 1951. Pollock himself had surmised as much when he saw his works reproduced in a fashion magazine as if they were mere wallpaper. His paintings seemed like the ideal modern stage on which to present sophisticated evening gowns. This intuition appears to have led Pollock to take a step backwards in the works he painted shortly thereafter and until his death in 1956 in an automobile accident that looked an awful lot like a suicide. It was a retreat to his origins that displeased Clement Greenberg, the movement's arbiter, who accused Pollock of having lost his "thing"—what Greenberg resisted calling genius.

In some way, Pollock knew that he had to return to white: to the white of canvas or paper—as Rauschenberg would do when he erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning—or to white paint (blanco, but not blank), as again Rauschenberg did with his White Paintings. These were silent works that reflected what surrounded them. Far from remaining static, they acquired movement by means of light and its absence, shadow. They were never the same, because the viewer could project him or herself onto them, playing with the ways in which the works could be perceived. These paintings inspired another silence, the silence that the composer John Cage clocked at four minutes and thirty-three seconds. At the same time, they hearkened back to another important figure, the teacher whom a very young Rauschenberg had sought out when he decided to study at Black Mountain College: Josef Albers (1888–1976).

Albers was a discreet artist, so much so that in some cases art historians have preferred to forget him, even though he would be fundamental in any understanding of what happened to painting (and sculpture, too) after the Second World War—if the history of art in the last century had been told in another way. He was a painter who also worked in white, in those delicate inkless intaglios made by embossing paper that he executed in the late fifties and that he titled Intaglio Solo, and in some of his Homages to the Square, in which it is light and shadow that draw.

He had the vocation of a teacher, but not the sort that flaunts a title and proclaims the prevailing discourse of traditional art history; rather, he was one of those who truly teach and who do not hesitate to adopt in their own practice what they might be able to learn with and from their students. This quality in Albers is amply evident in the magnificent exhibition organized by the Fundación Juan March, the most important show ever devoted to the artist in Spain. The exhibition highlights this aspect of Albers's work in presenting several of the exercises he did with his students and the ways in which some of the results were included in his book, Interaction of Color, a fundamental treatise on color theory, a first edition of which is on display.

The exhibition is a retrospective, and its title, Medios mínimos, efecto máximo / Minimal Means, Maximum Effect, quotes the artist almost literally. It spans his career, from some of his earliest drawings, in which his interest in light and shadow is already progressing, to his famous Homage to the Square series that he worked on almost obsessively for over two decades, creating variations in which he experimented with the ways one color reacted to others around it, thereby constructing the painting. The lines of these squares are not perfectly straight, for they were executed freehand following the artist's eye. These experiments with light, color, and perception are evident already in his works in glass, translucent or painted, that he created at the Bauhaus, where he was a student and teacher, like the Gitterbild (Grid Mounted, 1921–22) displayed in the first room. Fashioned from fragments of bottles, the play of translucency and reflections is fundamental to this work; the same effect, though executed with greater subtlety, comes forth in the Fabrik (Factory) series he created a few years later, on display in the same room.

The exhibition also draws attention to his role as a designer, presenting some of the furniture and utensils that he produced, and to his approach to photography, with which he sought out the geometric structures hidden in landscapes both natural and constructed. He discovered such structure also in his repeated visits to Mexico, which inspired another of his most famous series, Variant/Adobe, of which several examples are featured here. This exhibition reveals Josef Albers to be, undeniably, an indispensable figure for understanding the evolution of art in the second half of the twentieth century.

Josef Albers, el maestro silencioso

La Fundación Juan March dedica una gran exposición a este pintor abstracto definitivo en la experimentación con el color y en su labor pedagógica en la Bauhaus. Imprescindible para entender el siglo XX.

En 1953, Robert Rauschenberg posaba en la Stable Gallery de Nueva York delante de una de sus White Paintings. Llevaba unos de esos trajes típicos de los 50 que siempre parecen quedar grandes. Está sentado sobre una de sus esculturas. Cruza las manos sobre una de las rodillas con mucha delicadeza, demasiada, quizás. Mira con gesto aburrido a la cámara, como si estuviera cansado, harto de la norma del Expresionismo abstracto, que dominaba la escena artística del momento. Esa pintura de gesto, de la pincelada y el brochazo anchos y del óleo que gotea para desvelar al individuo que hay detrás, se había convertido en un telón de fondo.

Lo había visto bien Cecil Beaton cuando fotografió para Vogue algunas modelos frente a los grandes pollocks que expuso Betty Parsons en 1951. Y lo habría adivinado el mismo Jackson Pollock al ver sus obras reproducidas como si fueran papel pintado en una revista de moda. Sus pinturas parecían ser el escenario moderno perfecto sobre el que presentar sofisticados trajes de noche. Intuyéndolo, Pollock parece dar un paso atrás en los cuadros que pintó poco después y hasta que murió en 1956 en un accidente que tenía bastante de suicidio. Una huida hacia los orígenes que no gustó a Clement Greenberg, el árbitro del movimiento, que lo acusó de haber perdido la "cosa", eso que no se atrevía a llamar el genio.

De algún modo, Pollock sabía que había que regresar al blanco: el de la tela o la hoja de papel, como Rauschenberg haría al borrar un dibujo de Willem de Kooning, o al de la pintura blanca, que no en blanco, como hizo en sus White Paintings. Unas obras calladas que reflejaban lo que les rodeaba; que lejos de mantenerse estáticas adquirían movimiento mediante la luz y su ausencia, la sombra: que no eran nunca iguales porque el espectador podía proyectarse sobre ellas jugando con el modo en el que se percibían. Unos cuadros que inspiraron otro silencio, el que el compositor John Cage fijó en 4'33", pero que remitían a otro personaje importante, al profesor que un jovencísimo Rauschenberg había buscado cuando decidió irse a estudiar al Black Mountain College: Josef Albers (1888-1976).

Albers fue un artista discreto, tanto que en algunos casos se le ha preferido olvidar pero que resultaría fundamental para entender lo que sucedió en la pintura, y también con la escultura, después de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, si la historia del arte del siglo pasado se hubiera contado de otra forma. Un pintor que también trabajaría con el blanco, en esos delicados grabados hechos mediante gofrado de finales de los 50 y que se titulan Intaglio Solo, o en alguno de sus Homenajes al cuadrado, en los que son la luz y su ausencia, la sombra, las que dibujan.

Tenía vocación de maestro, pero no de los que se escriben con mayúscula y articulan el discurso de la historia del arte tradicional, sino de los que enseñan de verdad y a los que no les importa incluir en su propio práctica lo que pueden aprender con y de sus alumnos, como se demuestra en la magnífica exposición que ha organizado la Fundación Juan March, la más importante que se la dedicado en España, y que subraya este aspecto mostrando algunos de los ejercicios que hacía con sus estudiantes y el modo en el que algunos de estos fueron incluidos en su La Interacción del color, ese tratado fundamental sobre el color del que se enseña la edición príncipe.

Una retrospectiva, titulada Medio mínimos, efecto máximo, citándole casi de forma literal, que abarca algunos de sus primeros dibujos en los que ya se adelanta ese interés por la luz y la sombra, hasta sus famosísimos Homenajes al cuadrado, una serie en la que estuvo trabajando casi de forma obsesiva durante más de dos décadas, haciendo variaciones en las que ensayaba con el modo en el que el color reacciona a los que está alrededor, construyendo la pintura.

Unos cuadrados en los que no hay líneas perfectamente rectas porque están hechas a mano alzada y que el que mira traza a ojo. Ensayos con la luz, el color y la percepción que ya se encuentran en las pinturas con cristal o sobre vidrio que hiciera en la Bauhaus, donde fue alumno y profesor, como ese Cuadro con enrejado (1921-22), realizado con trozos de botellas que destaca en la primera sala y en el que la transparencia y los reflejos se hacen fundamentales, igual que ocurre, aunque más sutilmente, en las Fábricas, algo más tardías, que lo acompañan.

Es una muestra en la que además se alude a su papel como diseñador, presentando algunos de los muebles y utensilios que produjo, y al modo al que se enfrentó a la fotografía, con la que buscaba la estructura geométrica que se ocultaba en el paisaje, tanto en el natural como en el construido. Una estructura que encontró también en sus constantes viajes a México, de los que nació otra de sus series más conocidas, Variant/Adobe, de la que se han incluido algunos ejemplos. Josef Albers es un artista que, sin duda, se desvela en la exposición como imprescindible para entender la evolución del arte de la segunda mitad del siglo XX.


Installation view, Josef Albers: Medios Minimos-Efecto Maximo (Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect)

Albers: Abstraction Squared

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition Josef Albers: Medios Minimos-Efecto Maximo (Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect), at the Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 28 March–6 July 2014. The review was published in El País on March 28, 2014. The original Spanish is below.

For a figure catalogued on the bookshelves of Western art as the creator of contemplative works with spiritual overtones, Josef Albers (1888–1976) could be quite practical when he wanted to. For example: when he painted his celebrated homages to the square, those rectilinear, concentric fields of color with which he occupied himself during the last three decades of his life. As the son of a craftsman painter, Albers prided himself in taking on these compositions from the inside out, just as one paints a door—for that is how one avoids getting drips of paint on one's hands.

The anecdote aptly conveys the aims of this show devoted to the abstract painter, theorist, poet, photographer, teacher, and furniture designer that the Fundación Juan March is presenting in Madrid through July 6, 2014, under the title Medios mínimos, efecto máximo / Minimal Means, Maximum Effect, the first retrospective of the artist's work held in Spain. The exhibition's title, which recalls a favorite aphorism of Mies van der Rohe, a fellow faculty member of Albers's at the Bauhaus, does justice to the precision in the selection of around one hundred of the artist's works, which serve to recount a career that began in the early twentieth century and which, by the 1970s, witnessed all that it had anticipated finally confirmed, in later tendencies like Minimalism and Op Art. The title likewise does justice to the objectives of the curators, Nicholas Fox Weber, a biographer of major cultural figures and the life and soul of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Manuel Fontán, exhibitions director at the Fundación Juan March.

Standing before an early Homage to the Square (1950) on loan from Yale University, Fontán resorted this week to the age-old definition of economy as the disposition of scarce resources capable of alternative uses in the production of goods and services: "It's the perfect metaphor for Albers's work, because over the years he went about cutting away at his forest, until he ended up with what was essential and, in the early 1950s, hit upon what he had been searching for. That's when he arrives at the square, the end of his path to abstraction."

Fontán situated the beginning of this story in the drawings that open the exhibition, early demonstrations of genius in the young Albers, a man who was otherwise not very precocious. These drawings present, for example, a simple curve to insinuate the silhouette and movement of a ballerina. Around that time, Albers had not yet found his vocation as a teacher, a part of his career that is one of the most powerful elements of the exhibition. Indeed, Albers participated in two of the most important pedagogical experiments of the twentieth century: the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College.

He enrolled as a student in 1920 in the German school of design founded by Walter Gropius. Three years later, he was given the task of teaching the practical fundamentals of design to the new students at the school. He became a Bauhaus master in 1925, when the institution moved to Dessau, around the same time he married Anni Albers. Evidence of his work from those years is featured in the exhibition at the Fundación Juan March, whose museum in Palma de Mallorca is presenting a parallel show of the artist's graphic work. The material from his Bauhaus period includes work in glass, like the factory building outlined in sandblasted glass and black paint against a red background; his designs (two exquisite desks, the abiding concoction of nested tables, and his Model ti244 armchair); and two sections with mementos: samples of work by his students and images he made—being the compulsive photographer that he was—of Bauhaus colleagues like Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer.

A providential job offer from the United States allowed the couple to leave Germany in 1933, the year that the Bauhaus closed operations, when the country advanced in martial step towards barbarism. That same year, Albers took charge of the painting section of Black Mountain College, where he taught until 1949, with future titans of American art like Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg among his students.

Those years were also the period of his fascination with Mexico, which has left its mark on this exhibition. Several oils on Masonite (his preferred support) communicate the idea of an adobe house on a bright day, executed with masterly abstraction. "In carrying out our research for the exhibition, we discovered that before he went to Mexico, he visited Havana to deliver three lectures, of which we have been able to rescue two," Fontán explained. The exhaustive catalogue provides a record of this entire process. "Like with weddings—one seems to generate others—the idea [for this exhibition] emerged from another show, America Fría / Cold America, in which Albers was one of the three non-Latin American artists featured," the exhibitions director recalled. That happy exception led to collaboration with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut, at the heart of the most sophisticated and academic corner of the US, a sense of which is palpable in the galleries at the Fundación Juan March, where around one hundred works are on display. Nearly two-thirds come from the Albers Foundation, and the rest are loans from collections like the Tate, the Beyeler Foundation, and the Metropolitan, the very museum that made Albers the subject of its first exhibition of a living artist, in 1971.

In the last section of the show—which also pauses to consider his famous treatise, Interaction of Color, and his enigmatic inkless intaglios—the squares in various combinations of colors seize the visitor's spirit in an efficient and efficacious symphony that surely would have pleased their creator, who wrote on one occasion, "Abstract Art is Art in its beginning and is the Art of the Future."

Albers, abstracción al cuadrado

Para ser un creador archivado en los anaqueles del arte occidental por una obra contemplativa de tintes espirituales, Josef Albers (1888-1976) podía ser muy práctico cuando quería. Por ejemplo, al pintar sus célebres homenajes al cuadrado, esos rectilíneos campos de color concéntricos que ocuparon las últimas tres décadas de su existencia. Como el hijo de un pintor artesano, Albers se enorgullecía de atacar esas composiciones de dentro afuera, tal y como se pinta una puerta; es el modo de evitar el goteo y así las manos no acaban manchadas.

La anécdota sirve bien a los propósitos de la muestra que la Fundación Juan March dedica en Madrid al pintor abstracto, teórico, poeta, fotógrafo, pedagogo y diseñador de mobiliario. Se anuncia hasta el 6 de julio bajo el título Medios mínimos, efecto máximo como la primera retrospectiva consagrada al artista en España. El enunciado, que recuerda a la sentencia de Mies van der Rohe, compañero de claustro en la Bauhaus, hace justicia tanto al esfuerzo de concreción en la selección del centenar de obras llamadas a contar una carrera que arrancó a principios de siglo y acabó siendo alcanzada en los setenta por todas sus profecías (minimalismo, arte óptico), como a las intenciones de los comisarios Nicholas Fox Weber, biógrafo de grandes personalidades y alma de la Fundación Josef y Anni Albers, y Manuel Fontán, director de exposiciones de la March.

Este recurría esta semana ante un temprano Homenaje al cuadrado (1950) prestado por la Universidad de Yale a la vieja definición de la economía como la administración de los recursos escasos susceptibles de usos alternativos para producir bienes y servicios: "Es la metáfora perfecta de la obra de Albers, que fue talando a lo largo de los años su bosque, quedándose con lo esencial para dar a principios de los 50 con lo que andaba buscando: es entonces cuando llega al cuadrado, el final de su camino hacia la abstracción".

El principio lo había situado Fontán en los dibujos que abren el recorrido, tempranas muestras del genio del joven Albers, hombre por lo demás escasamente precoz, en los que una simple curva sirve para insinuar la silueta y el movimiento de una bailarina. Por aquel entonces, Albers no había dado con su vocación docente, que es una de las tramas más poderosas de la muestra y que lo haría participar en dos de los experimentos pedagógicos más importantes del siglo XX: La Bauhaus y el Black Mountain College.

En la escuela alemana fundada por Walter Gropius ingresó como alumno en 1920. Tres años después, le fue encomendada la tarea de enseñar a los recién llegados a la escuela de diseño los fundamentos de la manufactura. En profesor se convertiría en 1925, cuando la institución se instaló en Dessau, más o menos en la época en la que se casó con Anni Albers.

Testimonio de aquellos años están en la Juan March, que dedica en paralelo su espacio de Mallorca a la obra gráfica del artista, sus trabajos en cristal, como esa fábrica que se recorta en vidrio esmerilado y pintura negra sobre un fondo rojo, sus diseños (dos exquisitos escritorios, el perdurable invento de las mesas nido y la silla con brazos TI 244) y dos secciones de recuerdos: un conjunto de ejemplos de trabajos de sus alumnos y las imágenes que su alma de fotógrafo compulsivo tomó de compañeros como Paul Klee o Schlemmer.

Una providencial oferta llegada de Estados Unidos permitió a la pareja abandonar en 1933, año del cierre de la Bauhaus, la Alemania que avanzaba con paso marcial hacia la barbarie. Ese mismo año se hizo cargo de la sección de pintura del Black Mountain College, donde dio clases hasta 1949 a titanes del arte estadounidense como Cy Twombly o Robert Rauschenberg.

Aquel fue también el tiempo de la fascinación por México, de la que hay pruebas en la muestra: varios óleos sobre masonite (su principal soporte de expresión) transmiten con magistral abstracción la idea de una casa de adobe en un día luminoso. "En la investigación para la exposición descubrimos que antes de México hizo una visita a La Habana para dar tres conferencias, de las que hemos podido rescatar dos", explica Fontán. De todo ese proceso ha quedado constancia en un exhaustivo catálogo. "Como suele suceder con las bodas, que de una sale otra", recuerda el director de exposiciones, "la idea surgió de otra muestra, la de América fría, en la que Albers era uno de los tres artistas no iberoamericanos incluidos". De aquella feliz excepción nació una colaboración con la Fundación de Josef y Anni Albers en Bethany (Connecticut), en el corazón del EEUU más sofisticado y académico, un aire que se deja sentir en las salas de la March, que albergan un centenar de obras: un 60% de préstamos llegan de la institución y el resto, de colecciones como la Tate, la Beyeler o el Metropolitan, museo que hizo de él en 1971 el primer artista vivo al que le dedicaba una muestra.

Al final del recorrido, que se detiene también en su célebre tratado Interacción del color o en su producción de enigmáticos intaglios, los cuadrados en diversas combinaciones de colores se apoderan del ánimo del visitante en una eficaz sinfonía que a buen seguro habría agradado a su autor, que en cierta ocasión escribió: "El arte abstracto es arte en su génesis y es arte del futuro".


Josef Albers
America, 1950
7 1/2 × 8 ft. (2.3 × 2.5 m)
Harkness Commons Graduate Center, Harvard University

Eyes on 'America', with Hope of Drawing More

A wall is just a wall. Unless it is a work of art hidden in plain sight.

That was the message of a lecture Tuesday at the Graduate School of Design — the first in "Then and Now," a series on the legacy of the iconic architect Walter Gropius, courtesy of the Professor William Breger Fund. Gropius taught at Harvard from 1937 to 1952 and was credited with creating an American fervor for modern design. Introducing the lecture, Dean Mohsen Mostafavi said, "We want to use the series to make that history present."

The messenger was Christopher E.G. Benfey, Ph.D. '83, a professor at Mount Holyoke and a polymathic historian, memoirist, and literary critic. His focus: a floor-to-ceiling mosaic of yellow masonry brick called "America" (1950). In its Harkness Commons setting, the wall is little noticed despite its intricacy (inspired by the pre-Columbian Mitla ruins in Mexico) and its size (8 feet wide and 11 feet tall). To the casual viewer, Benfey said, it is nothing but "the backside of a fireplace."

The wall's designer was German-born American artist Josef Albers, a longtime Gropius friend from their days at the Bauhaus. The school, which opened in 1919, inspired a major current in architectural modernism. It was closed in 1933 by the rising Nazi regime, which saw its utopian, communal ethic as a threat to Germanic culture.

Both Gropius and Albers decamped to the United States: the architect to Harvard and the artist to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental, commune-like school (1933-1957) with more than a touch of Bauhaus to it. Albers put fine arts practice at the core of the curriculum. ("The Depression," Benfey said, was "the last great era of progressive education," a time of struggle that was mitigated by a sunny "aesthetic of newness.")

Albers directed the painting program at Black Mountain until 1949. His wife, Anni, a fabric artist, was a colleague. Meanwhile, Gropius was eager for his friend to join him at GSD. But despite two decades of periodic teaching visits and a one-year appointment at Harvard in 1949-1950, Albers ended up at Yale.

Benfey, it turns out, was uniquely prepared to deliver "A Wall at Harvard," a lecture about Josef and Anni Albers: They were his great-uncle and great-aunt, and he had recently written a related memoir on his family, "Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay" (2012). It is a dreamlike but exactly detailed rumination on the interweaving of objects, places, and personalities.

Albers was at first reluctant to accept Harvard's wall commission. On the plus side, it was for Harkness Commons, a new complex (five dormitories and a graduate student center) cooperatively designed by his friends: Gropius and others at the Architects Collaborative. But on the minus, Albers had never built a wall — and was not an interior designer, much less an architect.

A series of concurrent inspirations and events won the day, said Benfey. For one, Albers had just left Black Mountain, where his last years were spent in a series of artistic experiments, leaving him more open to technique than ever.

In the heat of creativity, Albers was also poised to begin his famous series of abstract color experiments, "Homage to the Square." Anni was in bloom too, in the midst of her landmark exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art — the first of its kind for a textile artist. Most of all, said Benfey, the creatively entwined couple (one observer called them a "two-person religious sect") was still absorbing the lessons of color, art, and life they had derived from frequent visits to Mexico.

Their visits to the Mitla ruins, beginning alongside Diego Rivera in the 1930s, inspired Anni's textile design — and also awakened a taste in Albers for intricate brickwork, where shadows from recessed pieces could be part of an artistic scheme. The artist took hundreds of photographs of ancient brickwork. Soon after, having absorbed Mexico's lessons of riotous color, ziggurats of stone, and intimacy with nature, he was open to building a wall that was not just a wall.

Of the Harvard project, Albers later wrote, "I decided to make a real mural" — one that would revive the meaning of the word itself. (The Latin murus means "wall," he pointed out.) As Benfey noted, Albers was critical of the murals of his day, dismissing some of them as "enlarged easel paintings."

The Harvard work is called "America," in part because of the stark sense of verticality it imparts, as if skyscrapers were jutting into the sky. "The composition represents growth, perhaps structural growth," Albers wrote. Benfey, who had spent the day on an informal tour of Harvard architecture, compared the wall's artful brickwork to the exterior of Sever Hall, a "utopia of brick," he said, where H.H. Richardson strove "to escape the idea of uniform units deployed in a grid."

Searching for the meaning of "America" today is complicated by the fact that the Albers creation of 1950 is barely seen. "I can't emphasize enough," said Benfey, "how invisible this work is in its current setting."

He widened that thought to the fate of Harvard's Bauhaus footprint, now almost 65 years old. In an era of bigger Harvard buildings, built in "a glorious boardroom, corporate style," he said, "the whole Gropius complex feels like it's been ingested."

To the packed-in audience at Stubbins Room in Gund Hall — students, artists, architects, and historians — those were fighting words. "It's time for us to look very closely," said Lynette Roth of Harvard's unseen artistic treasures — and that process has begun already. Roth is the Daimler-Benz Associate Curator at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum, a partner in the Harvard Art Museums, which has significant holdings by Anni Albers, as well as by Josef Albers.

At the end, Mostafavi spoke up with a wish: that 65 years ago Albers had joined Harvard instead of Yale, bringing with him an approach to learning that is all the rage again, not only at GSD: one that blends the cerebral world with the world of arts practice, twin pillars of thought and action that long ago characterized both Bauhaus and Black Mountain College.

Meanwhile, said Mostafavi of the new lecture series, inspiration is there to be had from Gropius, from the friends he had, and from the past he inhabited. A look back, he said, might encourage Harvard at large to embrace "a different kind of reflection."