Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper is exactly what we’ve come to expect from The Morgan Library: a precisely calibrated exhibition centered on a finite aesthetic compass, a specialist’s delight that nonetheless has tangible pleasures to offer the layman. It’s also a rare treat to witness Albers, that most pedantic of artists, let down his guard.
Josef Albers (1888-1976) embodied the principles of the Bauhaus, the influential German art school founded in 1919. Though he attended other institutions, Albers’ studies at the Bauhaus and, in particular, with color theorist Johannes Itten, proved decisive. Albers began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1923 and became a full professor at the school’s Dessau outpost two years later. The Bauhaus closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime—the school’s teachings were not sufficiently Aryan.
Albers and his wife, Anni, subsequently left for the United States, both of them accepting teaching posts at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. (“Germans to Teach Art Near Here” read a December 1933 article from the Asheville Citizen.) But it was Albers’ appointment as dean of Yale’s design department in 1950 and the publication of his seminal text Interaction of Color that codified his historical standing. Albers’s signature suite of paintings, collectively titled “Homage to the Square,” put into practice the goal of “maximum effect with a minimum of means.”
Truth to tell, a little of “Homage to the Square” goes a long way—-sometimes minimum means result in minimum ends. Seen en masse, Albers’ chromatic and compositional structures-—always effective, invariably inflexible—-lend themselves more to finger tapping and clock-watching than aesthetic contemplation. Still, among the surprises at the Morgan is the first of the series, a rarely exhibited panel rendered in, of all things, black and white. For aficionados of modernism’s more austere outposts, this inclusion has to count as something of an event.
The majority of Josef Albers in America is dedicated to informal studies on paper. Covered with scrawled notations, flurried applications of color and grease stains, they reveal Albers’ rigorous methodology at its most approachable. No Platonic exegeses here, thank you; instead we have the remnants of workaday life in the studio. The Morgan show allows us to experience Albers as a man given to curiosity and play—-and it prompts double-takes.
Did you know that this most stringent of pedagogues relied largely on colors used straight from the tube or that his insistence on “hands-off” surfaces didn’t preclude experiments with varnishes? Contemporary sensibilities will relish the diaristic nature of Albers’ works on paper and, in the case of the lush tangencies of “Variant/Adobe, Study for Four Central Warm Colors Surrounded by Two Blues” (ca. 1948), swoon to them. Elsewhere, Albers daubs to charming effect, toys with perspective and posits Mexico as “the promised land of abstract art”—-all the while exemplifying one man’s “craziness about color.”
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper
Through Oct. 14, The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., 212-685-0008, themorgan.org.
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