Editors' pick

Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration

Painting/Drawing
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Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration photo
'Homage to the Square: Glow,' Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
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Editorial Review

Hirshhorn Museum presents Josef Albers exhibit

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's strange that abstract art tends to gather more words around it than most other kinds of work. You'd think that abstraction, subjectless and story-free, would be more about looking than talking, but we can't seem to resist the urge to talk it through until we and it are all talked out.

Washington, a spielers' town anyway, should be spinning words like mad around the Hirshhorn Museum's big new show of works it owns by Josef Albers, one of the 20th century's great believers in pure, and purely visual, abstraction.

Albers, who was born in 1888, got his start as a student, and then as an influential teacher, at the Bauhaus in Germany, a school whose staff had helped launch abstraction. A few of Albers's Bauhaus prints and stained-glass works are in this show. (Some of the early works are loans from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, since the Hirshhorn's extensive holdings tend to focus on the artist's later years.)

After 1933, when the Nazis forced the school to shut, Albers ended up heading the art program at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught future luminaries such as Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland. From 1950 to 1958 he was a major force in modernizing the art department at Yale. In 1971, Albers became the first living artist to get a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and he died, still painting, five years later.

As a famous teacher, Albers was of course a famous talker, and his writings on color in art were vastly influential. But his words were really about getting people looking, as closely as they could, at what it is to see.

Albers's magnum opus is his "Homage to the Square," a vast series of abstractions that is the heart of the Hirshhorn show. Over the last three decades of his life, the artist used simple patterns of concentric squares to study how one color changes in the presence of another, and how even subtle changes in color can alter our perceptions of space, light and shape.

In fact, color seems to touch on almost every aspect of what it is to see things in the world. Looking at the dozens of Albers's squares on view at the Hirshhorn, I counted 13 different ways in which changing the color of a surface could alter what I made of it. I'm sure that others could find more -- and that's not even touching on the social meanings of colors or their emotional effects. (Albers had his doubts about how well the "meaning" of color could be tied down, given how little stability there is in even our most basic color perception. When subtle shifts in context can give 13 or more different "looks" to a single blue, it's hard not to imagine that any one color could be used to mean at least 100 different things.)

And now I've gone on far too long. For once I'll try the Albers way and let the pair of pictures on this page speak for themselves, which is one of the hardest things to ask of any work of art. In fact, one crucial truth that Albers's art proclaims is that pure looking is close to impossible.

Which leads me to a final word -- a challenge to this article's readers. Why not spend five minutes (a cappuccino's worth of time) gazing at each of Albers's images, and then another five glancing from one to the other (tack a muffin onto your coffee)? Fifteen minutes just feeding shape and color to your eyes and staying mindful of what they see. Few people will manage the task. It demands more attention and time than almost anyone has ever given to a newspaper picture, and more of both than 99 percent of us spend with 99 percent of works of art in our museums.

But it's that 1 percent that really get to hear Albers.