‘In the end, the study of colour again is a study of ourselves’
With its nested series of green, emerald, khaki and ochre squares, Homage to the Square: Last Year (1964) is a luminous work from Josef Albers’ seminal series of Homages to the Square: one of the twentieth century’s most important investigations into the properties of colour. The present example was included in the seminal Op-Art exhibition The Responsive Eye, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965, alongside works by artists such as Bridget Riley who were also exploring the potent optical effects of interacting colour and form. Albers created the work the year after the publication of his ground-breaking treatise Interaction of Colour, in which he set out the theories derived from years of teaching, observing and art-making. Begun in 1950 and pursued until his death in 1976, his Homages to the Square became a virtual laboratory for Albers’ rigorous dissection of the chromatic spectrum. Each conveying a different set of tonalities, they sought to scrutinise what Albers believed to be the most critical, and most widely misunderstood, of art’s formal mechanisms. Working on the rough side of masonite, often applying paint directly from the tube, Albers felt that the only way to comprehend the true impact of colour was to observe the ‘push and pull’ effect of various chromatic values when placed in close proximity to each other. As he explained, ‘We are able to hear a single tone. But we almost never (that is without special devises) see a single colour unconnected and unrelated to other colours. Colours present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbours and changing conditions’ (J. Albers, Interaction of Colour, New Haven 1971, p. 5). The subtitles of his paintings – in this case Last Year – are intended not as literal descriptors, but rather as evocative expressions of the processes and effects at work. Grounded in poetry and science in equal measure, the Homages gave birth to an extraordinary range of chromatic ‘climates’ that, for many, possessed deeply emotive and even spiritual qualities. As Hans Arp once wrote, ‘They contain simple, great statements such as: I’m standing here. I’m resting here. I’m in the world and on earth. I’m in no hurry to move on. While Mark Rothko sought transcendence, Albers looked for fulfilment here on earth’ (H. Arp, quoted in W. Schmied, ‘Fifteen Notes on Josef Albers’, in Josef Albers, exh. cat. The Mayor Gallery, London 1989, pp. 9-10).
By the 1960s, Albers’ Homages had broken new ground in the field of colour theory: an accolade consolidated in 1971 when he became the first living artist to be granted a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Alongside his own practice, Albers devoted much of his life to disseminating his findings to new generations of artists. Following his early career at the Bauhaus during the 1920s, he relocated to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where his seminal course on colour had a significant impact upon young artists such as Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg. In 1950, Albers was appointed chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University, where the course reached its apex, culminating in the publication of the now-legendary Interaction of Colour in 1963. Albers firmly believed that teaching art should not involve the prescription of style and technique, but should rather seek to question the way in which we see: to ‘to open eyes’, as he put it, to the fundamental relationships between line, shape and colour. His courses, by extension, were not intended as dogma but rather as ‘an ongoing inquiry in which solutions were not conclusions, but steps on an endless path’ (J. Albers, ‘Colour’, in G. Alviani (ed.), Josef Albers, Milan 1988, p. 105). His approach was rooted in direct observation, and his classes sought to focus his students’ attention on phenomena that might otherwise have gone unobserved: the way in which the colour of tea darkened in a glass, or the spot of light that lingers on a television screen after the set is switched off. By encouraging his students to concentrate on visual minutiae, Albers strove to shed light on the diffuse, multifarious nature of human perception. Homage to the Square: Last Year, with its focused, musical interplay of tones, has the same profoundly eye-opening impact. ‘In the end’, as Albers explained, ‘the study of colour again is a study of ourselves’ (J. Albers, quoted in S. Fesci, Oral History Interview with Josef Albers, 1968, reproduced at http://www.aaa. si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-josef- albers-11847).