- Josef Albers
Galerie Karsten Greve, Cologne
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998
Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, 1963, 4th edition, New Haven and London 2013, p. 3.
Executed in 1969 and evincing an assiduous exploration into the colour red, the present two paintings are superlative examples from one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable artistic series of the Twentieth Century: Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square. In his belief that colour does not exist by itself but only in dialogue with other colours, Albers created an oeuvre that postulates the primacy of colour through visual experience. The artist himself wrote that “we are able to hear a single tone. But we almost never (that is without special devices) see a single colour unconnected and unrelated to other colours. Colours present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbours and changing conditions” (Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, 1971, New Haven and London 2006, p. 5).
First initiated in 1950, Albers' consummate Homage to the Square were the product of a meticulous painterly and geometric process. The gradually repeated enlargement and reduction of the square formed the structural basis of these paintings: their specific organisation is regulated by a fundamental checkerboard structure of 10 by 10 units. Ranging in size from 16 by 16 inches to 48 by 48 inches, the paintings employ four possible variations on a rigid concentric schema; the first formal configuration contains four squares while the remaining three compositional types contain three squares in different arrangements, as evidenced by the present works. This calculated economy is again reflected in the use of colour, the physical characteristics of which are almost completely denied owing to the artist's strict technique in which paint was immaculately applied by palette knife onto a pristine white ground. Herein, the homogeneity of the surface is of primordial importance for Albers. Elevated above all else, the surface was finished with the highest attention to detail in order to focus the viewer’s gaze on the fullest possible chromatic impression.
Albers’ works are as much an homage to colour as they are to the square. His chromatic theories were firmly embedded in the belief that colour is never to be understood rationally but always in terms of its effects on the psyche. Where Goethe’s famous colour circle was derived hierarchically from the wisdom of natural science, Albers’ approach was one of dialogue, juxtaposition, and above all experimentation. He first developed these theories alongside Paul Klee at the Bauhaus in Weimar in the 1920s, and later at the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where his colleagues included Robert Motherwell and his students were Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. As part of the faculties of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College – the two academic pillars of Modernism and the twentieth-century avant-garde art – Albers was one of the earliest pioneers to embrace these institutions and use them as vehicles to spread artistic beliefs. Indeed, looking at the pantheon of post-war American art, the influence of Albers upon the subsequent generation of artists was immense, ranging from Mark Rothko (a former pupil of Albers) to Ad Reinhardt and Mark Tobey, to name but a few. By the time the present works were created, Albers’ Homages had revolutionised the field of colour theory: an achievement validated in 1971 when he became the first living artist to be awarded a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Particularly pertinent were his theories on how colour was affected by its context; Albers believed that our perception of colour is directly influenced by its immediate surroundings. He postulated that the manipulation of a colour’s surroundings are just as important as the colour itself. He used the analogy of heat to explain his idea: 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 of his oeuvre. He expounded: “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 cited in: Getulio Alviani, Ed., Josef Albers, Milan 1988, p. 233).
In the present works layers of nuanced crimson envelop Albers’ archetypal Masonite surface to create a mesmerisingly simple yet theoretically complex visual experience of both light and depth. Confirming Albers’ status as one of the most influential artists of the post-war era, they provide an autonomous polyphony in which rational thought is abandoned in favour of a truly sensuous experience of pure colour.