Painted in 1939, Josef Albers’ Construction in Red-Black-Blue is an early work that testifies to the artist’s lifelong fascination with chromatic relations. Interlocked zigzags of the titular red, black and blue appear to simultaneously extrude and collapse into the painting’s white background. With its simplified lines and blocks of colour, Construction in Red-Black-Blue resembles a woodblock print: indeed, Albers was a prolific printmaker, a medium he took up while studying and then teaching at the Bauhaus. After emigrating to the United States from Germany in 1933, Albers helped to establish a radically non-hierarchical arts curriculum underpinned by Bauhaus philosophies at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. When asked what he would teach at the new college, Albers responded, ‘To open eyes’; decades later, he reflected, ‘I have taught to learn to see’ (J. Albers, interviewed for the Archives of American Art by S. Fesci, New Haven, CT, 22 June 1968). A study for the present work is held in the Yale University Art Gallery.
In the winter of 1935, while on holiday from Black Mountain College, Albers and his wife Anni travelled to Mexico, and the planar vibrancy of Construction in Red-Black-Blue evokes the pre-Colombian architecture and art that had so inspired the couple. They returned to the country on several occasions including in June of 1939, when they spent most of their time in Tlalpan where Albers was teaching. Mexico, the artist said, ‘is truly the promised land of abstract art. For here it is already 1000s of years old’ (J. Albers, quoted in D. Zhou, ‘How Pre-Columbian Art Influenced Josef Albers’, Hyperallergic, 23 March 2018). Despite Albers’ incorporation of a flattened geometry, the works that initially emerged after that first trip to Mexico were still relatively painterly. By 1939, however, he sought a more regimented structure for his compositions which can be seen in the painted architecture and balanced forms of Construction in Red-Black-Blue. The influence of Russian Constructivism, too, is palpable in its clean lines and angular geometries. Its nested format, meanwhile, may be seen to anticipate Albers’ seminal series Homage to the Square, in which he continued his chromatic and formal investigations.