This work is to be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being prepared by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation as No. JAAF 1961.1.123.
Josef Albers dedicated over twenty-five years of his artistic practice to a devotional study of color. Beginning in 1950, when the German-born artist took up the position of head of the department of design at Yale University, he also adopted the square as a formal device that allowed him to organize different colors across the same plane to observe the effects they have upon each other. For instance, a lighter color juxtaposed with a darker color may appear to advance or recede in perceptual space all-the-while remaining static swaths of oil paint lying adjacent to one another. The square yellow core of Homage to the Square: April Afternoon creates the illusion that the center is floating in space over the dove grey and green that surround it. The darker olive that frames the entire composition is the darkest hue of the four presented, expanding the edge of the painting outwards, while the black pulls one’s vision inwards.
True to his Bauhaus training, an aesthetic philosophy that integrated form with function, Albers’s square serves the purpose of the control, or the unchanging factor, in his investigations into understanding the relationality and relativity of color. Throughout his canvases, Albers would methodically replace one color with another, exploring the full range of the palette in combinations of three or four different tones at a time.
For Albers, the study and teaching of color was not an aesthetic practice divorced from the mechanics of daily life. In the same way that his study begat a system of teaching art that would influence some of the most important artists of the 20th century, Albers learned a way of living and thinking about the world. Like color, Albers found life, in all its dimensional complexity and nuance, to be contextual, relational, and perceptual, shifting and changing depending upon the perspective and position from which one engaged it. In the artist’s own words, “Once one has had the experience of the interaction of color, one finds it necessary to re-integrate one’s whole idea of color and seeing in order to preserve the sense of unity... When you really understand that each color is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as about color” (J. Albers, quoted in Josef Albers: The American Years, Washington, D.C., 1965, p. 28). Thus, through his interaction with color, Albers sought the spiritual through the daily practice of making art.
The present work is from the collection of George S. Rosenthal, a prescient collector, who distinguished himself in the field of graphic design in the early 1950s. As a publisher of Portfolio, he ran one of the most influential graphic design magazines of the 20th century. Rosenthal’s family owned a printing press called S. Rosenthal and Co., and created Zebra Press to publish pictorial paperbacks and innovative, affordable photojournalist books including Weegee’s legendary Naked City. Rosenthal, who was also a photographer, attended Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s school, The Chicago School of Design, and was close to artists like Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy himself. Rosenthal conceived Portfolio as a luxurious and avant-garde publication, bringing together the finest quality paper and printing methods with his new Bauhaus aesthetic inspiration. Alexey Brodovitch, the acclaimed visionary art director of Harper’s Bazaar between 1934 and 1958, served as Portfolio’s Art Director. To maintain the publication’s aesthetic integrity, they chose to forgo advertising, which made it commercially impractical; it lasted only three issues but its impact was immediate and wide-ranging. Portfolio featured art as an essential part of its avant-garde layouts, which Brodovitch and Rosenthal oversaw, including articles on artists such as Francisco Goya and Alexander Calder, as well as a feature on graffiti art. Most famously, Hans Namuth’s cinematic photographs of Jackson Pollock flinging paint upon his canvases appeared in Portfolio’s third issue in 1951.