First conceived in 1950, Albers' seminal Homages to the Square were the product of a meticulous painterly and geometric process. While Goethe’s famous color circle was derived hierarchically from the wisdom of natural science, Albers emphasized an approach that was based on dialogue, juxtaposition, and above all experimentation. Through experience and trial and error, Albers came to the radical conclusion that color is dependent on context: the same hue can be seen by the viewer as more intense in one combination than in another. Despite the work’s title, the eponymous shape is used by Albers primarily as a vehicle for color, rather than as a focus in itself. By consistently utilizing this identical concentric construction in each work, Albers could use form as a control while experimenting with new permutations of hues, observing and evaluating the empirical effects of each new contrast.
Because each color is placed in direct contact with the next, these chromatic impressions are heightened and intensified by the relative properties of the disparate shades. In order to increase these effects even further, Albers replaced the traditional canvas medium with the rough side of Masonite, preferring its raw texture, and often applied paint directly from the tube, producing a sense of fresh immediacy. He painstakingly applied the paint by hand with a palette knife to create a homogeneous surface, allowing the viewer to completely focus on and become immersed in the effects of the colors as they respond to one another. His choice of contrasting pigments creates a sense of depth and perspective in an otherwise flat pictorial plane, and achieves this with remarkable clarity in the present work. The effulgent yellow in the center of the composition, nestled within bands of grey and green, appears to float above the other colors in an illusion of three-dimensional space.
Albers’ revolutionary view that different colors could create psychological or emotional effects in the viewer has positioned him as one of the most influential artists of the Twentieth Century. As a student and later teacher at the famous Bauhaus in Weimar, Albers developed his theories alongside Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and László Moholy-Nagy. Upon immigrating to the United States, Albers would become one of the leading figures of the avant-garde Black Mountain College, working alongside Robert Motherwell and teaching young artists such as Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Rauschenberg. Albers later taught at Yale University, where his students included Eva Hesse and Richard Serra. The influence of Albers’ teaching philosophy and his own scholastic practice can be traced throughout the pantheon of post-war American art, from former pupil Mark Rothko's absorptive oil paintings to the Minimalist works of Donald Judd. Judd himself cited the influence of the Homage series on his own work, observing: “there is very much a simple, suitable, and natural wholeness to the arrangement of squares within squares, which is one of the best ideas in the world, one which provided enormous versatility and complexity. This arrangement is easily at one with color. It’s amazing that it so quietly produces such brilliance.” (Donald Judd, ‘Josef Albers, 1991’, Chinati Foundation newsletter, Vol. 11, 2006, p. 61)
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