"All Variants are built on an underlying checkerboard-like structure. This provides a definitive relationship of all parts and therefore unification of form...The underlying units—permit a precise relationship of the areal quantities of the colors used...As to the colors themselves, they are unmixed. They are applied with a palette knife directly from the tube to the panel, in one primary coat without under or over painting, without any correction...Consequently I have deprived myself of great light contrasts. As there are no shaded or tinted colors, there is no modulation, all color areas are flat and of definite shapes joining along the contours tightly...The appearance of translucency or intermixture or film-like overlapping are achieved by the proper juxtaposition of pure color only."
Painted in 1957, Josef Albers’s White Wall B belongs to a paintings series entitled Variants (or Adobe), which precedes the Homage to the Square series. White Wall B speaks strongly to the influence of Albers’s travels to Mexico and New Mexico: experiences that served as the impetus for developing this series in which Albers’s obsession with color theory and its relationship to geometric form culminated in his first continuous body of paintings. A large-sized example from the series, the bright yellows of White Wall B evoke the vibrant energy of Albers’s Mexico, while the subtle variations in texture and tone pay tribute to the artist’s relentless ethos of experimentation.
Albers and his wife Anni first traveled to Mexico in the winter of 1935; by the 1960s, they had returned over thirteen times. Propelled by a growing passion for pre-Columbian art, the couple amassed an enormous collection of stone and clay figures, vessels and Andean textiles. The architectural vocabulary of sites such as Monte Albán and Tenayuca, among others, influenced Albers’s understanding of pictorial space, which was henceforth a flattened “accordion-like” plane. In a letter to Wassily Kandinsky following one of these visits, Albers stated that Mexico “is truly the promised land of abstract art. For here it is already 1000s of years old” (J. Albers, quoted in L. Hinkson, Josef Albers in Mexico, exh. cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2017, p. 16).
Echoes of these stepped pyramids and pre-Columbian architecture are visible in the geometry of White Wall B. Influenced by adobe houses found in Mexico and New Mexico, where Albers also went with his wife during his sabbatical from the Black Mountain College in 1946, the painting is divided into a grid of small squares that Albers systematically painted using roughly equal amounts of pure, unmixed color. Whichever color appears dominant is therefore determined not by the amount of paint applied but by the way in which the interplay of colors is processed by the viewer's brain. Like an optical illusion, certain squares seem to pop out of the canvas while others recede into the distance. His sketches for the series include calculations about the precise delineation of surface area, while his color studies document the various paint types and varnishes he would use. These formulas are often written on the verso of the finished works, as is the case with White Wall B.
White Wall B was first exhibited at Albers’s 70th Anniversary Exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1958 and subsequently included in several renowned museum exhibitions around the world, such as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1961 and the Museum Folkwang in Essen in 1963. The Variant/Adobe series was the subject of the major exhibition in 2017-18, Josef Albers in Mexico, which first took place at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, before traveling to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
White Wall B exemplifies the convergence of Albers's passion for Mexico's architecture and culture with his studies of color theory, which date back to his Bauhaus years. During the early 1920s, as a student and later a professor at the Bauhaus, Albers demonstrated an early tendency towards logic and order when he experimented with precise squares of ready-cut glass that he painted using monochromatic colors and then methodologically aligned in wooden frames. Under pressure from the newly elected Nazi regime, the Bauhaus was closed in 1933, forcing Albers to immigrate to America where he took up a teaching post at North Carolina's prestigious Black Mountain College.
In 1950, Albers would become Chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University, residing in New Haven, Connecticut until his death in 1976. A devoted and passionate teacher, Albers dedicated his internationally acclaimed book, Interaction of Color, to his students whom he claims were also his teachers, enriching and stimulating his painting. Prompted by his aforementioned travels to Mexico with his wife, Albers developed a fascination with pre-Columbian architecture which he believed combined to perfection his theories on color and structure. These theories would be explored in several series which he began in the 1930s and continued throughout his lifetime. Albers would continue to paint Variants/Adobes until 1966, at which point he began to increasingly focus on his Homage to the Square project. Thus, White Wall B stands at a crucial crossroads in the artist’s oeuvre, fusing his pre-war German structure with a newfound interest in South American sensibilities to create an inimitable global art force.