- Josef Albers
Galerie Hybler, Copenhagen
Private Collection, Denmark (acquired from the above in 1964)
Private Collection, Denmark (by descent from the above)
Sotheby's, London, 7 February 2007, Lot 31 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Essen, Museum Folkwang, Josef Albers, February - March 1963, no. 7
Copenhagen, Galerie Hybler, Josef Albers, October 1963
Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Amerikansk Kunst 1950-70, 1971, no. 2
Albers made the move towards abstraction and the avant-garde comparatively late in life. Tired of the tedious dogma of traditional German painting, which he studied in Munich under Franz von Stuck, Albers responded enthusiastically to the radical Bauhaus manifesto of 1919. He described his abrupt decision to leave Munich in unequivocal terms: “I was 32 but I went to Bauhaus. Threw all my old things out the window, started once more from the bottom. That was the best step I made in my life” (Josef Albers cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World, 2006, p. 66). He arrived in Weimar at the height of the German Depression, and with basic artistic materials far beyond his financial means, Albers resorted to using discarded objects that he found at the town dump. From unwanted bottle caps and pieces of glass Albers created a large series of collage works: jewel-like compositions which reflected wider Bauhaus ideals in their treatment of light and transparency. However, to an even greater extent, these early experiments provided the foundation for Albers’ lifelong preoccupation with colour. This was of course another central concern of the Bauhaus. Johannes Itten, one of the founding members of the school and Albers’ first teacher in Weimar, redesigned Goethe’s colour wheel and taught extensively on colour theory. Wassily Kandinsky wrote extensively on the emotionally evocative properties of colour in his seminal 1912 publication, On the Spiritual in Art, and continued his experiments in that direction, pairing shape and form with colour to determine elemental force throughout his tenure at the Bauhaus. Most significantly, Paul Klee, who joined Albers in the glass workshop in 1922 (a year after he was hired by Itten in 1921), was concerned with the relationships between colours, and the balance they can create on a canvas. Works such as Red-Green and Violet-Yellow Rhythms (1920) experiment with the effects of complimentary colours operating in tandem. This concern with the interaction of colour proved to be of canonical importance to Albers’ practice, particularly from 1950 onwards when he began his most celebrated series, the Homage to the Square.
This series, despite its title, is primarily concerned with colour, rather than shape. Although Albers was convinced of the fundamental status of any elemental form, he considered the carefully considered composition of squares, the placement of which on the canvas is consistent throughout all the works in the series, to primarily operate as “platters to serve colour” (Josef Albers cited in: Nicholas Fox Weber, ‘Josef Albers’, in: Getulio Alviani, Ed., Josef Albers, Milan 1988, p. 10). What follows is a hymn to hue and pigment, a testament to the power of colour to alter and dictate our vision. Homage to the Square: Temperate is a spectacular example of this ocular affect. The square of red in the centre of the composition, nestled within bands of purple and blue, appears to float in front of the other colours, so fresh that it must have been the last colour applied. And yet, we know that this is not the case. Albers’ father, a house painter, had taught his son that when you paint a door you should always start with the centre to avoid getting your cuffs dirty, and Albers applied the same logic to his Homage series, always starting with the central square and working outwards. This is simply one of many testaments to the power of colour observable in Albers’ work. As Weber observes, Albers' paintings prove that “the colour of something affects where we see it in space” (Ibid., p. 10).
Although this almost scientific approach to colour is undoubtedly deeply indebted to the work of his colleagues at the Bauhaus, Albers’ opus should not be considered solely in terms of his influences. As a professor and an artist his own influence has been of immense importance to the development of twenty-first century art. Indeed, his pedagogical contributions are a vast part of his legacy. As a teacher at first the Bauhaus, then Black Mountain College in North Carolina and finally at Yale University, Albers exerted his influence on many of the great names of contemporary art, bringing the theories and practices of the Bauhaus education along with him. Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, and Ruth Asawa all studied under him at Black Mountain, as did Robert Rauschenberg, who famously described Albers as “the most important teacher I’ve ever had”, observing that “he didn’t teach you how to ‘do art’... what he taught had to do with the entire visual world” (Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Statement on Josef Albers’, Rauschenberg Foundation, online). Even post-Black Mountain, Albers’ influence was titanic. Eva Hesse and Richard Serra studied under him at Yale, and Donald Judd, the spiritual father and principal theoretician of American Minimalism, 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 colour. It’s amazing that it so quietly produces such brilliance” (Donald Judd, ‘Josef Albers, 1991’, Chinati Foundation newsletter, Vol. 11, 2006, p. 61).
Remarkable for its chromatic vibrancy, Homage to the Square: Temperate epitomises the concerns that characterise this iconic series. Deeply rooted in his education and subsequent professorship at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, and building upon his theories of colour relativity expounded and summarised in his 1963 book, Interaction of Colour, the peerless precision of the present work’s execution confirms Albers’ status as a titan of twentieth-century art. Indeed, his remarkable influence as an artist and teacher affirms his own observation about the totality of colour’s influence: “Once one has had the experience of the interaction of colour, one finds it necessary to re-integrate one’s whole idea of colour and seeing in order to preserve the sense of unity... 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: Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Josef Albers: The American Years, 1965, p. 28).