Thursday, April 22, 2010

Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration

Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration is a smartly organized show, spanning all aspects of Albers career. It contains work that is very familiar, “Homage to the Square” as well as many unexpected works by the artist, including stained glass and some representational drawing. The exhibit proves to show Albers as a true innovator, who saw making art as an investigation, and encouraged his many students to do the same. The show also goes to great pains to help the audience gain access to work that might otherwise be hard to understand for the layperson. There are also many discoveries to be made for the more informed viewers, who may only think of Albers in terms of foundation design classes.
The entire exhibition is separated into different sections, the first “Early Work and the Bauhaus” starts you off on your journey through Albers career. Three representational drawings are on display from 1917-19 which seems to be sort of a prerequisite for abstract work shown to a mass audience. They serve their role in telling the viewer that yes the artist could draw, but more importantly they show that even early on Albers had an affinity for geometric forms. They are rendered in a pseudo cubist manner, which tends to lean closer towards representation than fragmentation. Then you move on to see that when Albers entered the famed Bauhaus school he abandoned representation for abstraction. In many of these black and white pictures figurative elements are used but in a much more designed fashion. There is a real gradation from representational work to non-objective work, as if the curator was trying to ease you into it. This section also included stained glass works, which were displayed in thin black framed light boxes. From afar these light boxes looked like computer monitors. It seemed strange to have works shown upon monitors, but upon further inspection you realized that it was stained glass. The resemblance to digital technology was startling, and many of them brought Peter Halley to mind.
The wall texts also provide insight into some of Albers ideals as an artist, which in turn help to understand the work. He made his drawings with the intention of having them mass produced so that art could be affordable to everyone. Also he made many of the stained glass pieces with discarded materials making him a proto green designer.
The next section is dedicated to his work with the now mythical Black Mountain College, where Albers was the founding director of the art department. Here we see Albers lifelong dedication to teaching take shape. The work shows that Albers was not just a colorist but believed in the investigation of materials and processes. He encouraged his students to make art from nontraditional materials including things found in nature. This idea is exemplified in his “Leaf Studies” which use found leafs to create compositions. These ideas were radical for their time, and showed his students that art did not need to be made from established and expensive materials. This idea is paralleled in his book “Interaction of Color” where he states that students should not have to buy the expensive color aid packs, but instead just tear out swatches of color from magazines. This presents Albers teaching method as conscientious as well as encouraging of a hands on, investigative approach.
The largest section of the exhibition “Homage to the Square”, presents some of Albers most recognizable work. Most of the paintings are compositionally identical. The only differences are in size and in color. These works demonstrate how much color can impact the read of a work. Albers believed that colors have no inherent emotional associations, and emphasized the subjectivity of perception. This is proven by countless identical compositions where the interactions of colors create varying effects. His belief in the subjectivity of perception, lends itself well to post-structural theory, which states that a work has an infinite amount of interpretations. Albers says each person sees a different red when looking at the same Coke can.
In case you weren’t sure what was going on with “Homage to the Square”, the next section “Albers as Teacher” provides a nice reference. Here we see examples from his book “Interaction of Color”, which has become an art school staple. This section is purely demonstrative but enjoyable nonetheless. The examples are shown with captions explaining what is going on; some of them even pose questions which challenge the viewers’ own perception. We see many possibilities of color interaction including the creation of space, transparency, optical vibration, one color appearing as two, two colors appearing as one and the ability to make colors look darker of lighter than they really are. There is also a reemphasis on Albers belief in the investigation of materials and textures as well as his belief that art can be from anything.
The final section of the show “Albers as Inspiration” displays work by wide range of some of modern arts most recognizable figures. The group includes Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Richard Anuskiewicz, Jacob Lawrence, Kenneth Noland, Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, and Robert Rauschenberg who said that Albers was the best teacher he ever had. What is interesting about this grouping is that the show has built up a framework for you to look at other artists work. It’s nice to see a varied group of work put under a very specific context and have it be judged on those terms. Also this may prove to be useful to many viewers especially people without much knowledge of art. For example the show helps you understand the usage of newspaper clippings in Rauschenberg’s work, for Albers encouraged the use of discarded materials.
Albers: Innovation and Inspiration proved to be an important show for shedding light on an Artist who was much more than colored squares. The exhibit shed light on Albers ideals as an artist and as a teacher. Great examples of his work as well as informative wall texts in each section helped the viewer contextualize and understand the work in a manner which is often neglected. The educational spirit of the exhibition seems to be fitting for an artist who spent his life dedicated teaching.

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