‘The water of a swimming pool with blue walls will look dyed with blue because of diffused reflection. Observing the white or blue steps within the water, we will discover that with each step down the blue of the water increases progressively, which presents a true volume colour effect’
—J . ALBERS
HOMAGE TO THE SQUARE
Josef Albers’ Homages to the Square stand among the twentieth century’s most important investigations into the properties of colour. Begun in 1950 and pursued until the artist’s death in 1976, the iconic series of nested squares became a virtual laboratory for Albers’ rigorous dissection of the chromatic spectrum. Each conveying a different set of tonalities, the Homages sought to scrutinize 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 devices) 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). Despite their scientific grounding, the Homages gave birth to an extraordinary range of chromatic effects – or ‘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 late 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 his now-legendary volume 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 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. ‘In the end’, he explained, ‘the study of colour again is a study of ourselves’ ( J. Albers, 1968, reproduced at http:// www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-josef-albers-11847 [accessed 20 July 2016]).