Estate of Richard S. Zeisler, New York
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (bequeathed from the above in 2007)
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 9 November 2011, Lot 75
Private Collection, Miami
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
To make the Homage to the Square paintings, Albers first coated panels of Masonite, a form of hardboard, with layers of glossy acrylic to create as smooth a surface as possible. He then applied paint, directly from the tube, with a palette knife. It was of paramount importance to Albers that the paint was unmixed, unadulterated, and didn’t blur with the blocks next to it – he was insistent on preserving the purity and sanctity of a single hue so that it could have maximal impact. The present work is characterised by chromatic contrast: two yellows – one almost fluorescent, the other fading towards beige – sandwich two tones of pale grey.
With its set of four diminishing concentric squares, this composition is among the rarest of the Homage to the Square paintings. This having been said, the differences between each work from this corpus are minimal, relying upon chromatic and nuanced geometric variation for aesthetic effect. Albers didn’t want to distract the viewer with compositional change. His works are as much an homage to colour as they are to the square – they were platters upon which colours could be served up in their raw unadulterated form to the viewer.
Albers was as much a theorist and teacher as he was a painter and he made significant contributions to our artistic understandings of colour. Particularly pertinent to the present work were his theories on how colour was affected by its context; Albers believed that our perceptions of colours were directly influenced by their immediate surroundings. Indeed, he postulated that the manipulation of a colour’s surroundings were just as important as the colour itself. He used the analogy of heat to explain his ideas: that after dipping your hand in hot water, tepid water would feel cold. Conversely, after experiencing cold water, that same tepid water would feel much hotter. This idea that we experience entirely different reactions to a scientific constant, based purely on a change of immediate context, was revelatory for Albers, and its application to chromatics provided one of the central pillars on which his oeuvre rests.
The effect is absolutely clear in the present work. Precisely because he left them completely blank and unmodulated, the colours are allowed to interact with each other and create visual interest of their own accord. Upon prolonged examination, different squares seem to process and recede, engorge and diminish. The colours seem brighter in the middle and darker at the edges, while the off centre alignment of the congruent shapes gives the overall composition a sense of dynamism. Experiencing Albers’ works is experiencing vindication of a tireless adherence to his own rules: because we are not surprised by his composition and because he has eschewed shading and modelling in favour of pure colour, his chromatic expertise is allowed to shine through.
Homage to the Square: Two Grays Between Two Yellows is an apt demonstration of Albers relationship with colour. On one level, his observations on phenomena like chromatic contrast seem almost scientific. However, his devotional repetition of these meditative works imbues his practices with a quasi-religious mood. In his own words, “when you really understand that each colour is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as about colour” (Josef Albers quoted in: Getulio Alviani, Ed., Josef Albers, Milan 1988, p. 233). This stellar work is not only of exceptional provenance, but also can be viewed as an ideal example of the way in which Albers changed not only our intellectual comprehension of colour through his teachings and writings, but also our visual appreciation of colour through his exacting and elegant works.
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