Distillations: Albers and Morandi at David Zwirner Gallery
Albers and Morandi: Never Finished at David Zwirner, New York
January 7 to April 3, 2021
525 West 19th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, davidzwirner.com
Albers and Morandi, an exceedingly handsome, thought provoking show, probes the surprising affinities between two very different mid-20th-century artists. Walking through its large rooms of small, widely spaced works, one senses a distillation of distillations, so to speak, as well as a gathering argument about the surprisingly fragile division between the abstract and the observed. If we ever needed persuasion on this point, this exhibition will convince, even if some paintings make a more compelling case than others.
The works of Josef Albers (1888-1976) and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) fall on opposite sides of the abstraction/representation divide, of course, but that’s just the beginning of their differences. Their entire relationship to paint could seem hardly more divergent. Morandi’s fleet brushstrokes delight in the viscosity of paint; Albers’ smooth surfaces downplay any evidence of human application. Morandi’s shapes melt into rich, atmospheric depths; Albers’s never stray from hard-edged precision. But similarities abound, too. Both artists worked most comfortably on a small scale, and preferred reductive palettes and compact, centered compositions. Moreover, they shared a certain temperament, evident in the patient determination and quiet vigor that equally animate their work.
Born into a family of craftspeople in Bottrop, Germany, Albers was hired in 1922 to teach at the Bauhaus as a stained-glass artist. With the rise of Nazism he moved to the U.S., teaching first at the fabled Black Mountain College, and then settling in for a long stint at Yale, where he wrote what was to become a standard text for art and design classes, “Interactions of Color.” His early stain-glass experience may have influenced his approach to color; his classes endlessly explored, with scraps of colored paper, the internal, abstracted light of juxtaposed hues. He was particularly intrigued by the illusion of transparency created by placing a sheet of just the right color over another one.
All but one of his nearly two dozen paintings in the exhibition belong to the “Homage to the Square” series, the nested-squares compositions that engaged him after 1948. In person, their color proves surprisingly emotive, and describable only – despite the artist’s penchant for the abstract – in real-life terms. The outer, surrounding square of a painting from 1973, for instance, acts like a dense, rust-colored frame, holding sturdily in space before giving way to delicate, central cloud-like grays. The centers of two other, side-by-side paintings suggest a pale cardboard box in shadow; behind them spreads a depthless, James Turrell-like aqua-blue. (Surely, even if abstract, the blue is behind?) At first, the two paintings look identical, but a second glance shows the blue-green to be slightly warmer, the tan barely darker, in one; labels indicate they were painted fully eight years apart. Albers’s drawing, too, hints at spatial depth: his compression of the squares towards the lower edge of every painting evokes a kind of proscenium, viewed from a point one third of the way up the painting’s height.
Morandi‘s life suggests a similar mix of modesty and rigor. Sharing an apartment with his three sisters, he hardly ever left his hometown Bologna except for summer stays in the neighboring hills. After a few early flirtations with Cubism and Metaphysical painting, he turned to more realistic landscapes and, especially, the luminous still life paintings celebrated today for the maximal light they extract from minimally modeled objects. To facilitate his muted color harmonies, Morandi famously pre-painted many of these bottles, boxes, and pitchers; a certain pre-planning is also evident in their carefully aligned tops and vertical intervals. Like Albers a devoted teacher, he taught etching for many years. The exhibition includes nine of his still life etchings, which preserve, in a busier crosshatching technique, much of his painting’s atmospheric depth.
Morandi’s dozen paintings include his “Still life with white bottle and small blue bottle” (1955), which deftly captures the conversation between two utterly different verticals: a stoutly fluted vase, barely but tangibly differentiated in its creamy lightness from the background, and a petite, spindly, dark blue vial. Colors tell us how they occupy space. Pressures of hue ebb and swell, on objects and spaces alike, so that every square inch urges a single impression: buoyant vase and its small, jewel-like descendant. In another robust painting, from 1957, repeating verticals spell out the rapport between three slender bottles and a pitcher. Overlapping in subtly shifting colors, the bottles lead the eye incrementally to a final splash of blue – a pitcher, familiar from other paintings, but reduced now to a crucial foil to the volumes in front. One moves palpably among the bottles, as through a copse of trees.
Albers’s compact rhythms serve as an effective, if unsubtle, framework for color investigations. For Morandi they feel more like elegant tethers for his continuous massaging of space. But their purposes overlap. Linger with the paintings in “Albers and Morandi,” and a peculiar realization sets in: one need only zoom in on one of Albers’s “proscenia,” adopt a slightly higher point of view – and, yes, add the cadences of observed light – and one comes intriguingly close to the intimate, contained energy of a Morandi. The greatest revelation of “Albers and Morandi,” in fact, may be its affirmation of the paradox of painting: every brushstroke is both pigment and a sensation in a parallel reality.
Arguably, the installation over-produces this revelation. At two points a single painting by each artist is centered, alone, on a vast wall. The effect is striking – the ultimate tribute to an artwork, befitting a tiny Raphael predella panel or van Eyck painting, either of which could hold up to hundreds of square feet of white. But can a painting by Albers or Morandi? Even though both fully pursued a vision of painting, neither probed its full potential; their inspirations were drawn out, elaborated, and put back, so to speak, in the same reliable box of centered and repeating horizontals and verticals. When Albers ventures “outside the box” with his non-square “Untitled (Variant/Adobe)” (1958), the asymmetric rhythms open the door to new contradictions across the surface: large vs small, expansive vs condensed, here vs there, and we may think wistfully of Mondrian’s more daring rhythms. Similarly, while Morandi’s most enthralling works make ordinary objects appear startlingly new and real, he just as often settles for the look of the impactful — those insightfully aligned bottles! — rather than its realization in a momentum of forms. Bonnard, for all his technical meanderings, more vitally located his still life objects.
But then, isn’t painting necessarily an unending quest? The exhibition’s subtitle, “Never Finished,” implies as much – and leaves one wondering what the “finish line”’ might be. My own vote would be for a painting that equally embraced the dynamics of abstraction and the complex veracity of representation, using each to inform and propel the other, to come up with something as potent, lucid, and essential as – well, a painting by Chardin, the eighteenth-century still life painter so admired by Matisse and Picasso. Dare we hope for a contemporary equivalent? That would be a painting holding up to any wall.