Josef Albers: Painting on Paper

  1. Josef Albers, Color Study for White Line Square,
    oil on blotting paper with gouache, pencil and varnish; The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 
    inv. no. 1976.2.22 29.53 x 29.66 cm

Josef Albers painted over 2000 paintings in his Homage to the Square series between 1950 and 1976, the year he died. What is less known is that the paintings--which took only a few hours each to execute--were preceded by intense color studies in oil, or sometimes gouache, on blotting paper. 

Unlike the pristine paintings on masonite or board, the sketches are loosely painted. Most are notated in the margins, sometimes even on the paint itself, with the information of their making: the names of paint brands and colors Albers used, and daubs of related hues. Sometimes the sketches are divided, and we see how one set of hues worked in relation to another, or they reveal his attempts to find the perfect gray foil to the hues already selected. Albers chose blotting paper for his sketches so that it would absorb much of the oil, leaving intensely pigmented color on the surface.

Fifty of these sketches are the subject of a splendid exhibition at the Morgan LibraryJosef Albers in America: Painting on Paper, through October 14. It's the only American venue for the show, so if you're an Albers devotee (and who isn't?) get over while the show is up. 

A catalog is available if you can't get there, but it doesn't begin to convey the intimacy of the small gallery and the color radiating from its walls. I wasn't allowed to photograph, so I can't convey it here either, but these images will give you a little taste of what's in the exhibition.

  1.   Josef Albers, Color Study for Homage to the Square, oil and graphite on blotting paper with varnish; The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, inv. no. 9/433 30.5 x 30.5 cm

  1. Josef Albers, Three Color Studies for Homage to the Square, oil on blotting paper; The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, inv. no. 1976.2.192 20.9 x 47.6 cm 

Josef Albers, Color Study for Homage to the Square, oil on blotting paper; The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, inv. no. 1976.2.336 33 x 30.4 cm

  1. Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square with Color Study, oil on blotting paper; The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, inv. no. 9/434 44.3 x 30.2 cm 

A little background: With his wife Anni (famed in her own right as a weaver of geometric tapestries developed during her time in the Bauhaus), Albers made numerous trips to Mexico between 1935 and 1955, taking in the light and the color and the geometry of the adobe houses, which were horizontally rectangular in shape and featured two vertical doors on either side of the central axis. He did a series of color studies using this motif, as well as individual paintings that relate to pottery and fabric patterns. “Mexico,” he wrote to Nina and Wassily Kandinsky in 1936, “is truly the promised land of abstract art.” 

  1. Josef Albers, Study for a Variant/ Adobe (I), ca. 1947, oil on blotting paper with pencil;  The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, inv. no. 1976.2.270 24.1 x 30.6 cm
    All images courtesy of the Morgan Library 

The iconic nesting-square format likely derives from this geometry, though it was simply a device. “Color,” Albers said, “is the means of my idiom. It’s autonomic. I’m not paying ‘homage to the square.’ It’s only the dish I serve my craziness about color in.” 

I recommend the entree.


Tricia said...

I love the quote at the end of this post! :)

Thanks for this article. Very interesting to see the studies behind the work.

Fleta Monaghan said...

I love these studies, and love the studies more than the refined work! Here in Asheville NC we are in Albers Country, with the Black Mountain College Museum preserving the legacy of this most interesting time and place for contemporary American art. We got to study with Fred Horowitz who was a student of Albers, what a wonderful experience!

annell4 said...

Thanks for the post. I have been studying Joseph Albers for the past year.

Tamar said...

I was absolutely transfixed by the work in this exhibit and prefer these studies to the formal paintings for which Albers is so well known. Going back for a final look.

Sue Post said...

wonderful show and post - and a great set of photos - did you find them online? when I was there there was no picture taking allowed...

Joanne Mattera said...

Sue: My press credentials got me in and I received a CD with info and images. So these are from the museum.

Hylla Evans said...

Thanks for this post and the images, Joanne. I will get the catalog. There are drawers here filled with color studies with nots on them and it feels really good to know I'm not the only obsessive one doing this alone in a studio.

Frank Hyder said...

Joanne this is a amazing and interesting peek into the mind and studio of the father of contemporary American art schools.I studied with several of his students ,all of which revered and feared him. When asked about his interest in geometry he allegedly replied ,"it means nothing to me it is just the plate upon which I serve my craziness."
I studied with Welliver who was Alber's successor at Yale. He made the most interesting ,complex and virtually unknown pencil studies for his massive machine paintings of the Maine woods.I hope one day the public sees how this famous realist followed so closely in the footprints of Albers.My first Critique with Welliver he referenced Albers,3 years later in our last he told me this amazing story: Welliver"i had a show in new york'i was in my studio while it was up ,when the phone rang,i knew by the voice it was Albers" Albers" neil saw your show." Welliver "wow thats great!" Albers,"I saw it three times"Welliver,"really that is too much..."Albers" neil do you think those paintings have color?"Welliver" well i worked hard to....."Albers," They don't"and then he hung up.
This story was the last gift of Welliver to me.These wonderful studies you wrote of reminded me of what a "terrible"giant Albers was.I mean this in the best of ways he was like the collossus of Goya raging through the world of decorative and superficial art.Devouring his own children when he felt the need.

Victoria Webb said...

Albers was a student of Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten, whose book, The Elements of Color, I studied years ago in an exploration of color theory. Itten is lesser known, but no less a master.

Joanne Mattera said...

I loved Itten's large book,"The Art of Color," but he had some funny ideas about color when it came to poeple--something akin to the "colors" done by fashion consultants, a la summer, spring, summer fall, winter. Kind of weird.