With its delicate interplay of yellow and white, Josef Albers’ Study to Homage to the Square: Two Whites between Two Yellows reverberates with the brilliance and clarity of a sundrenched morning. Within a rigid geometry of nestled squares, the artist separates radiant cadmium yellow from muted, introspective Naples yellow with two bands of shimmering white. In their interaction, the colours become playful and elusive, shifting away from their objective nature to form serendipitous illusions. The two yellows contrast and magnify their difference – one grows more vibrant, the other subdued. Bracketed by yellows on either side, the whites acquire a faint lilac sheen; one white becomes almost grey next to the iridescent brightness of the other.
Albers dedicated his career to investigating chromatic resonance of this nature, and the Homage to the Square series, begun in 1950, when the artist was sixty-two, is the culmination of his artistic practice. Each work in the series was carried out consistently and methodically: the artist used a regimented grid of three or four squares, contained one within the other. In each square a single, unmixed pigment was evenly applied, avoiding textural effects and meticulously preventing overlap. Albers then studiously recorded, in spidery handwriting, the name and manufacturer of each paint on the back of the work. Yet these self-imposed limitations on form and technique were not restrictive – Albers delighted in the countless possible permutations of colour, scrutinising their optical interplay and revelling in their unexpected poetry. 'Seeing several of these paintings next to each other makes it obvious that each painting is an instrumentation in its own,’ the artist explained. ‘This means that they are all of different palettes, and, therefore, so to speak, of different climates. Choice of the colours used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction – influencing and changing each other forth and back' (J. Albers, quoted in Josef Albers, exh. cat., The Mayor Gallery, London, 1989, p. 31).
Albers dedication to objectively investigating the properties of colour made him one of the foremost theorists of art in the twentieth century. A distinguished teaching career at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and the Department of Design at Yale University meant he was acutely sensitive to the minute, often unpredictable, variations of colour. For him, tone and hue, saturation and brightness became animated through a vivid synaesthesia which personified every shade: ‘Look!’ he described. ‘The colour orange is at the door and says to the yellow, “You go first.” But the yellow is also polite and says, “No, you go first.” They are like good friends and their conversation is very charming’ (J. Albers, quoted in F. A. Horowitz and B. Danilowitz, Josef Albers: To Open Eyes, New York 2006, p. 199). In Study to Homage to the Square: Two Whites between Two Yellows, Albers stages this charismatic encounter, listening attentively to the entrancing, mysterious conversations of colour.