Painted in 1962 – the year before Josef Albers published his now-legendary treatise Interaction of Colour – Study for Homage to the Square: Red Tetrachord is a rare and exceptional work from the series that defined the artist’s career. Originally held in the collection of E.J. Power, before being acquired by Jeremy Lancaster in 1993, it is the last red painting that Albers produced until 1966. Presented in its original frame, its title refers to a musical progression of four notes, here represented by the four tones of red. Like keys held on a piano, the hues swell and combine hypnotically, and the thinness of the pigment reveals a luminescent flux. Albers devoted over two decades of his life to his Homages to the Square series, which remains one of the twentieth century’s great investigations into the perception of colour. Begun in 1950 and relentlessly pursued until the artist’s death in 1976, each painting presents concentric squares of differing hues. Though Albers titled his paintings ‘Homage to the Square’, he viewed the shape as a vector for exploring the relationship between different tonalities; the square was simply a stabilising form subservient to his ‘craziness’ for colour (J. Albers, quoted in N. Welliver, ‘Albers on Albers’, Art News, Vol. 64 No. 9, January 1966, p. 69). Albers’ red paintings stand among some of the finest expressions of his theories – among them Homage to the Square: Broad Call, 1967 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) – and the colour’s perceptual properties held particular fascination for the artist. ‘If one says “Red” (the name of a colour) and there are 50 people listening’, he explained, ‘it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different’ (J. Albers, quoted in P. Sloane, The Visual Nature of Colour, New York 1989, p. 1).
Albers painted the Homages flat on a table and used a palette knife to spread his pigments – which were often squeezed directly from the tube – onto the rough side of a Masonite board. Using fixed measurements, the artist restricted each composition to one of four designs, yet the results are far from uniform or even similar, each an expression of radiant colour. As the artist said, ‘Some painters consider colour an accompaniment of, and therefore subordinate to, form or other pictorial content. To others, and today again, in an increasing number, colour is the structural means of their pictorial idiom. Here colour becomes autonomic. My paintings are presentative in the latter direction. I am interested particularly in the psychic effect – aesthetic experience caused by the interaction of colours’ (J. Albers, quoted in G. Hamilton, Josef Albers—Paintings, Prints, Projects, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1956, p. 36). In the earliest paintings, the colours seem opaque and impenetrable, each band decidedly distinct from the others. By the late 1950s, however, Albers’ paint became more translucent, the colours yielding gracefully to one another. If the early works evoked a sensation of linear perspective, these paintings – writes Charles Darwent – ‘take on a depth that comes from … colour itself’ (C. Darwent, Josef Albers: Life and Work, London 2018, p. 42). In the present work, music serves as an apt metaphor: the four hues resound like a carefully-tuned chord or scale, each component held in delicate, trembling balance with its neighbouring tones.