“The Greens are Envious of Each Other”: Josef Albers at the Morgan
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper at the Morgan Library & Museum
July 20 to October 14, 2012
225 Madison Avenue, between 36 and 37 streets
New York City, (212) 685-0008
Josef Albers, a Bauhaus refugee from an increasingly intolerant Germany, immigrated with his wife Anni to the United States at the end of 1933. The move would be extraordinarily sanguine for the artist, who had been associated with the Bauhaus almost from its inception in 1919, first as a student and then as an instructor. Once in the New World, Albers found the consolations of nature, both in an America that was mostly still unspoiled wildernesses, and in Mexico, whose rectilinear architecture became the inspiration for his Adobe series. Trained early on by his father, who was a master tinker capable of carpentry, house painting, and plumbing, Albers was a man of unusual integrity, in both his person and his art. This independence of mind produced remarkable paintings: The artist’s nearly scientific wish to explore the glories and relations of color gave way to the great, and vast, sequence of paintings entitled Homage to the Square. The Morgan Library’s remarkable show of Albers’ works on paper presents studies for that series, as well as exploratory efforts for the Adobe series, and striking color studies. It shows a very different sensibility from the austere distinction of Homage to the Square.
The kind of exploration exampled in the Morgan’s show plays with the numinous accord of colors arranged in conjunction with each other. Indeed, at one point, Albers is quoted as saying, “The greens are envious of each other,” a slightly comic aphorism born out in two very painterly studies of hues Albers deems as green (to this viewer, black, purple, and gray are also evident in the color sketch). Albers, seemingly impeccable as a rational experimenter, is shown here as both tenacious and tentative in his discoveries, even evidencing an expressionist bent, a far cry from his personality and better-known art. Works on paper have an immediacy and a spontaneity that the supposedly more serious mediums of canvas and linen lack, and Albers takes advantage of this quality, working out structures of luminous tone and subtle structure. There is a red on red on red study for Homage to the Square whose luminescence is so strong it makes the viewer feel that a light source exists behind the painting. Equally interesting is the subtle yet visible difference between the picture’s three kinds of red, with the square in the center painted the darkest hue, while the other two squares are of successively lighter intensities.
Who would have thought that Albers was capable of such moving lyricism in his works on paper? There are drips here and there, and the lines between squared forms are not exactly straight; the edges of the painting are often rough rather than clean. The idiosyncrasies of the work do not add up to much in a conceptual sense, but they result in wonderfully expressive art. The Adobe series, far more rectangular in its forms, demonstrate the inherent attractiveness of symmetry. In one, from 1947, broad swathes of two dark blues act as the background, with the pink adobe house only partially seen and framed on its outer limits by green and, a different ground, black. On front of the pink façade, one sees a rectilinear orange form, with a square in the middle that articulates two black doors. Albers is very much an artist of restraint, but in works like this his restraint is joyous in nature. In study after study, his curiosity gets the better of his hand, and marvelous improvisations result. The viewer leaves with a more accurate, and larger, view of Albers as a painter.