Josef Albers (1888-1976)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Collection of Robert and Sylvia Olnick
Josef Albers (1888-1976)

Homage to the Square

Josef Albers (1888-1976)
Homage to the Square
signed with the artist's monogram and dated 'A73' (lower right)
oil on Masonite
40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1973.
Josef Albers Foundation, Bethany
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Edward Totah Gallery, London
Galerie Hadrien-Thomas, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
G. Alviani, ed., Josef Albers, Milan, 1988, p. 189, fig. 280 (illustrated in color).
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Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Anni and Josef Albers Foundation. The catalogue record for this work will state that the inscriptions visible on the reverse were not written by Josef Albers.

Josef Albers’s famed series Homage to the Square could equally be called ‘Homage to Color’ because color and form are interdependent upon one another. In 1966, the German-born, then-New Haven based painter, exclaimed “Color is the means of my idiom. ...I’m not paying ‘homage to the square.’ It’s only the dish I serve my craziness about color in” (J. Albers, “Albers on Albers,” Art News, 1966, p 48). Using the square as a vehicle, Albers endlessly explored the possibilities of what can occur when placing colors in juxtaposition. The relationships produced between colors can be subtle—such as different shades of one hue—or overt, as is the case with this example. Blue frames green, all surrounding around a darker core of grey and black in nested squares. Much more than ‘only’ the means of presentation, Albers’s square was a framework which allowed these interactions between colors to be effective. His insistence upon the square as the container in which to present his investigations with color has elevated this simple shape to be one of the most recognizable hallmarks of Modernism.

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). The square functioned for Albers similarly to how Rouen Cathedral functioned as a placeholder upon which Monet could witness color interact with light, or how Mont Sainte Victoire was a readymade subject for Cézanne to experiment with color and shape to depict space.

In his 1963 treatise Interaction of Color, Albers put to paper the color theories he had tested on paint and canvas since painting his first Homage to the Square in 1950, the same year he took up the position of head of the Department of Design at Yale University (where his principles are still taught today). In this text he describes the effects that occur when different colors are placed side-by-side. Albers’s use of the black square as this painting’s center results in the illusion that it is recessed deeper in space than the other colors painted on the canvas. The blue that frames the entire composition is the lightest hue of the four presented, expanding the edge of the painting outwards, while the black pulls one’s vision inwards. On a color scale, green derives from blue when mixed with yellow. When green is placed in proximity with its blue progenitor, its bluish undertones are heightened. Grey appears to be darker next to black than it does next to green, further intensifying the visual pull of the painting into the center. By continuously experimenting with various colors in proximity to another within the square container, Albers is able to prove the relativity of color and its dependency upon context. In other words, color is not a fact but as perceptual relationship.

Albers’s process was carefully controlled so that the interactions between colors could occur without the interference of additional elements. He always began by painting the central square the same dimensions—four by four inches—in one of any number of commercially available colors straight from the tube. He chose to work with unmixed paint because he believed that the mixing reduced the potency of the unadulterated color. He then applied paint in thin layers to the surface of Masonite with a palette knife. Masonite was his preferred support because it produced a smooth surface finish; light and shadow would interact with a textured surface, also interfering with the transmission of color. Never using tape to mask off his shapes, nor applying one color atop of another, Albers’s exactitude ensured that two colors lay next to each other to achieve the starkest contrast through the straightest of hand-painted lines. Such discipline in the painterly process became a test of the eye’s ability to perceive.

Despite the apparent ease by which Albers’s mixes colors in the eyes of his painting’s viewer, his process of selecting colors was both intuitive and rational. As painter Elaine de Kooning explained, “Since the effect depends on the quantity, placement, shape, recurrence, ground, reflectability, etc., it remains a struggle, as color is the most relative medium in art, and it takes a trained eye to see the possibilities of correspondence among any given tones” (E. de Kooning, quoted in Josef Albers: The American Years, Washington, D.C., 1965, p. 28). Rather than restrict his expression, Albers’s chosen format created boundaries for the infiniteness of his endeavor. He wrote of his process: “I see that art essentially is purpose and seeing that form demands multiple presentation and manifold performance… In my work I am content to compete with myself and to search with simple palette and with simple color for manifold instrumentation. So I dare further variants” (J. Albers, quoted in Josef Albers at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Exhibition of His Paintings and Prints, New York, 1971, p. 1).

By the time this work was made, Albers’s reputation as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century was secured with a solo presentation at Documenta 4 in 1969. A major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, would come the following year in 1970, and would be the museum’s first retrospective to consider the work of a living artist. The theories about color Albers’s expressed in the practice of painting would influence not only students such as Eva Hesse, Kenneth Noland and Robert Rauschenberg, but generations of Minimalists sculptors and hard-edged abstract painters alike. Donald Judd would transform Albers’s square into his uniformly regular “boxes” produced in aluminum, concrete and other industrial materials. Describing Albers’s paintings, Judd 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).

Within these grand-scale reconsiderations of his life’s work, the artist maintained his methodical approach, painting variations on this theme through his death in 1976. The humility of his commitment to color is expressed not only in the dedication of his practice but also in his words, when he said, “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).

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