It is possible that society has never been more poorly prepared than in the present cultural moment to appreciate an artist like Josef Albers (1888–1976). The German-American painter’s deliberate, introspective, and contemplative art seems in many ways to be utterly incompatible with our overriding fascination with the big, the “now,” the provocative, and the bold, so much so that one wonders if Albers’s legacy might be at stake. Albers, of course, doesn’t make it easy on the casual art fan—the extreme simplicity of his signature paintings and their ostensible lack of subject can be, admittedly, hard to get past. Many critics have called Albers’s work cold and austere. Many, too, deride him as representative of an academic—or worse, dogmatic—Modernism, a belief likely emboldened by the fact that part of Albers’s renown derives from his legendary teaching career, first at the Bauhaus, then at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, and finally at Yale University.
But those willing to engage with Albers’s work—or with Interaction of Color, the artist’s 1963 book that reproduces the lesson plans and lectures of his influential pedagogical method—will find that the painter was anything but cold, and anything but dogmatic. His art and his teaching gave primacy to experience over theory, to discovery over ideology—perhaps unsurprising for a man who escaped an increasingly oppressive Nazi regime by immigrating to America in 1933. The unstable relativity of color, the way a color can seem to shift and turn based on its changing surroundings, also encouraged Albers to value experiential over rational knowledge. As he writes in the introduction to his seminal book:
Experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here—first and last—is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision—seeing.
This anti-ideological inclination, combined with the meditative quietude of his best work, paradoxically makes Albers an almost combative figure in the context of the contemporary cultural climate. I certainly felt this way seeing the Guggenheim’s exhibition “Josef Albers in Mexico” at the same time that the wildly strange, in-your-face, and politically explicit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” was still up in the museum’s main atrium.
Set in the fourth-level side galleries of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “Josef Albers in Mexico” is a hushed retreat from the noise of its erstwhile neighbor. The exhibition’s press release announces its aim: to “[illuminate] the relationship between the forms and design of pre-Columbian monuments and the art of Josef Albers.” As it turns out, Albers and his wife Anni (a serious artist in her own right) took frequent car trips to Mexico throughout their lives in America. There, we learn from the exhibition’s opening wall text, the two amassed a large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and studied the geometric volumes of the architectural and sculptural ruins of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.
Those willing to engage with Albers’s work will find that the painter was anything but cold.
The exhibition, which is curated by the Guggenheim’s associate curator Lauren Hinkson, places Albers’s well-known paintings alongside less-studied photographs (many exhibited publicly for the first time in this exhibition) that he took while visiting various ancient ruins in Mexico. This union will come as a surprise to those who know Albers only for his association with the Bauhaus, his influential approach to color, and his famous Homage to the Square series, a group of over two thousand paintings each consisting of three or four concentric squares of different chromatic values and hues. By organizing an entire exhibition around Albers’s photography of ancient Mesoamerican architecture and sculpture, the Guggenheim’s curators have made a case that Mexico is significant, perhaps even essential, to our understanding of his entire career and aesthetic outlook.
The curators—or rather, the objects they have hung—argue the point well. The archeological sites were clearly important to Albers as objects of serious research. Indeed, the exhibition tells the story of a sort of New World, Abstractionist reboot of the traditional “Grand Tour.” Whereas northern European artists, sculptors, and architects of early modernity traveled to Italy, Greece, and elsewhere to learn and draw from the sources of our Western humanistic tradition, here we find Albers and his wife driving down to Mexico to discover and photograph what they perhaps saw as the original examples of a different kind of art. In order to emphasize this intellectual and aesthetic adventure, the curators have organized the exhibition into sections that correspond with the six archeological sites that Josef and Anni most frequently visited. From the puuc architecture and spiral relief sculpture of the Governor’s Palace in Uxmal to the monumental talud-tablero temples of Monte Albán and Chichén Itzá, we can follow the German-born husband and wife in what must have been an exhilarating and eye-opening journey through the southern reaches of their own “New World.”
Albers’s Variant/Adobe paintings most clearly betray the influence of Mexican architecture, and also comprise some of the exhibition’s most confident works. Albers began making the grid-based, rectilinear paintings, we learn, while living in a traditional adobe house in New Mexico. But the title Variant/Adobe also illuminates a resemblance between the idiosyncratic vernacular of typical Adobe houses and the formal structure that recurs in “variations” throughout the series. Next to photographs by Albers of the actual Adobe houses in question, the paintings admit our passage through the depth of windows and doors while simultaneously asserting their plainly flat existence.
This ambiguous and subjective experience approaches the “psychic effect” that Albers mentions in Interaction of Color. Of course, color, too, plays an active part in the momentum of the works. Pink-Orange Surrounded by 4 Grays (1947–52) is a real knockout, with its would-be-inert grays enlivened by an adjacent pair of intense orange tones.
Also included are two delightful studies that shed light onto the painter’s methodical approach to color and form. Here, we are privy to Albers’s experimental, trial-and-error effort to pinpoint just the right color and place it in just the right context. Handwritten notes on aspect ratios, pigment numbers, and even brands of paint crowd the margins of these works, demonstrating Albers’s obsessive drive for consistency and clarity.
Spatial and titular reference to Mesoamerican art recurs throughout the exhibition, most frequently in paintings that precede Albers’s most famous works. The exhibition’s site-structured layout makes it difficult to track a cohesive chronology through Albers’s career, but close study of the wall labels reveals an initial infatuation with Mexican form and culture that ultimately develops towards the more distilled forms of his Homages. The work that Josef created within the first two decades he and Anni lived in America seems to make the most direct and obvious reference to the ruins. Two Studies for Tenayuca (ca. 1938), for instance, show Albers riffing on what looks almost like a three-axis architectural drawing of some sculptural form. In To Monte Albán, a 1942 lithograph, Albers uses stark, homogeneous lines to allude to, then invert, a bird’s-eye view of the pyramidal Monte Albán Temples.
The photographs also illuminate a number of under-considered aspects of Albers’s art. Beyond the obvious kinship between Albers’s paintings and the solid, geometric forms of the Mexican architecture on display, seeing these time-battered and chipped ruins, I was reminded of the similarly imperfect surfaces of Albers’s oils. Despite dubious comparisons to the likes of Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, or Kenneth Noland, Albers was no hard-edged painter—even his most geometric and simplistic paintings are airy and sensitive next to the daunting, mechanical rationality of those artists’ works. Albers never used masking tape as an aid for painting his edges, and he applied only one layer of paint to his works, from tube to panel, without modification or amendment. His colors bite into and interact with one another across imperfect borders that quietly betray the hand. The corners of his squares are slightly rounded: not mathematical, but natural, even weathered. The painter’s touch is gentle enough to preserve the internal unifying light and texture of the support’s ground, typically the primed, coarse backside of Masonite panels.
This exhibition opens eyes by letting its objects speak for themselves.
Each of these qualities indicate an acceptance, and indeed celebration, of the art object’s physical presence, harking back to the old Constructivist refrain of “Truth to materials,” which the sturdy clay and stone forms of Mexican sculpture also embody. Even Albers’s exclusive use of the palette knife to apply his colors seems to resonate with the mortar- and stone-laying masonry of those unnamed Mayan, or Zapotec, or Incan artisans.
The only paintings in the exhibition not explicitly tied to any architectural site or motif are the Homages. Representatives from this late series, started when the artist was sixty-two, are afforded their own section sans photographe along the elegant arc of the Guggenheim’s north tower, which echoes the circular geometry of the Museum’s main atrium but with a smaller, more conspicuous radius. Along its tightly wound bend run these seven unavoidably square works, making a nice display of both Albers’s geometry and the curvilinear elements of Wright’s building. In the same way that Albers’s paintings teach us that opposites of value and hue interact and intensify through close proximity, here the formal geometries of art and architecture amplify their counterparts in a display that would make any Bauhausian proud.
Despite heaps of visual evidence that the echoes of Mexican art found their way into Albers’s own work, exactly how the artist conceived of this influence remains an altogether more complicated question. For instance, is it really possible, one may justly wonder, that Albers, strident champion of the non-objective, was actually painting ancient Mexican temples all along? Titles such as Tenayuca I, To Monte Albán, Tierra Verde, Pyramid, and others might lead viewers in this direction. Or was there more nuance to the relationship? Was Albers inspired, rather, by the “plastic” (that is to say, visually dynamic) potential of the pre-Columbian forms that he found, by their “truth-to-materials” stance, or by the timelessness of their formal aesthetic presence?
It seems that the curators may have found it difficult to articulate precisely Albers’s position on these complex matters within the setting of an exhibition that hopes to connect with and remain accessible to a general audience. Many thoughts are reserved for the exhibition catalogue that was printed in conjunction with the show. In addition to an essay by Hinkson and one by the art historian Joaquín Barriendos, the catalogue includes the transcription of a lecture that Albers gave on aesthetics and on Mexican art in 1940 at Harvard. Albers titled the lecture “Truthfulness in Art,” and in it he argues for Mexican sculpture as an advanced art, against those who might denigrate it in comparison with the Western tradition:
I cannot agree with historians who insist on calling this art primitive. In my opinion such plastic work shows not only a highly developed psychological understanding of human nature, it also shows besides an extremely strong visionary power a very cultivated artistic discipline.
Bringing attention to the ways that pre-Columbian art inspired formal innovation within the painter’s career, “Josef Albers in Mexico” is a welcome correction to the common idea that Modernists embraced the influence of non-Western cultures solely to undermine the social mores of their own civilization. In fact, Albers was explicitly uninterested in the supposed religiosity or cultural provenance of these forms, as he explains later in that same lecture:
Walking through the museums in Mexico you will notice soon all the little notes explaining all the historical facts of those plastics. . . . Notes mainly concerned with the religious meaning of those figures. All Americans should be glad that these notes are typed in Spanish. Because they don’t help a bit to understand the figures as plastics. . . . We either don’t live or understand any more the old Mexican religion. But for open eyes the art value of those plastics is still living, still exciting and overwhelming. Quality in art is more permanent than any propaganda connected with it.
It seems that the Guggenheim’s curators have taken Albers’s own advice in staging this thorough exhibition of his paintings, prints, and photographs. By adopting an admirably hands-off approach to the presentation, the Guggenheim has avoided overexplaining Albers’s aesthetics or rising to the bait of currently hot but intellectually tired discussions of identity or “cultural appropriation.” Rather, the wall texts are sparse and generally stick to the history of the ruins and of Josef and Anni’s travels. The approach is not only a relief from the heavy-handedness with which many curators today treat modern art, but also fitting for the artist whose primary goal was, simply, as he told the local press upon his 1933 arrival in North Carolina from Germany, “to open eyes.” This exhibition opens eyes by letting its objects speak for themselves. And perhaps more importantly, by letting the objects speak to each other. The conversation they make will be revelatory to those not already aware of Albers’s connection to Mexico; to all, it will reinforce the complexity and achievement of his artistic project.
1 “Josef Albers in Mexico” opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, on November 3, 2017, and remains on view through March 28, 2018.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 49
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