This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and is registered as number 1961.1.124.
Josef Albers dedicated well over two decades of his career to his celebrated series Homage to the Square. Despite their outward effortlessness, closer inspection of works like Homage to the Square: Sudden Change reveal these paintings to be profound in their exploration of color theory, planar manipulation and pure beauty. Albers has said of his paintings, “they move forth and back, in and out, and grow up and down and near and far, as well as enlarged and diminished. All this, to proclaim color autonomy as a means of plastic organization”(J. WiBmann, “Josef Albers’ Homages to the Square as the Unity of Rationality and Sensitivity,” Josef Albers, London, 1989, p. 21). The square black core of Homage to the Square: Sudden Change superbly creates this illusion that the center is recessed deeper in space than the two shades of fresher green and the dove gray that surround it. The dark olive green that frames the entire composition is the darkest hue, expanding the edge of the painting outwards, while the black pulls one’s vision inwards.
As Henry Geldzahler, curator of Albers’s 1971 retrospective at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes in the catalogue to the exhibition, “The Homage to the Square paintings…are his major concern not so much because of any compulsive need to project the same image again and again, but because they provide a controlled structure for his ideas and feelings about color. They work in this sense much as does a control factor in a scientific experiment, the unchanging factor by which one measures all the others” (H. Geldzalher, “Introduction,” Josef Albers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971, p. 9).
Throughout the series, Albers would methodically place one color next to another, exploring the full range of the palette in combinations of three or four colors at a time. This deliberate and methodical study of color would also translate into a teaching philosophy developed over the course of a lifetime. Fleeing Germany due to Nazi persecution, Albers became a teacher at Black Mountain College where his students included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Ruth Asawa. In 1950, Albers would leave North Carolina to take up a position as head of the design department of Yale University, where he would teach Sheila Hicks and Eva Hesse. It was a Yale that the square became the primary focus of his study. This intense interaction with the same shape would certainly influence Hesse, who transformed the square into the three-dimensional cube in works such as Accession, and other Minimalists like Donald Judd, who held a profound appreciation for Albers. Judd lauded the artist’s Homage to the Square series when he wrote: “there is very much a simple, suitable, and natural wholeness to the arrangement of squares within squares, which is one of the best ideas in the world, one which provided enormous versatility and complexity. This arrangement is easily at one with color. It’s amazing that it so quietly produces such brilliance. …I was most impressed by the color, so that I neglected, underestimated, the singularity and efficacy of the concentric squares. They, of course, easily allow the color to be so diverse” (D. Judd, Painting on Paper: Josef Albers in America, Munich, p. 35).
Albers would synthesize his study of the relationality of color in the aptly named book Interaction of Color in 1963. On the first page, Albers lays out the tenets of his philosophy: “First, it should be learned that one and the same color evokes innumerable readings. Instead of mechanically applying or merely implying laws and rules of color harmony, distinct color effects are produced through recognition of the interaction of color by making, for instance, two very different colors look alike, or nearly alike” (J. Albers, Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, 1963, p. 1). 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 resulted in a system of teaching art that would influence some of the most important artists of the twentieth 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. 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.