Just in Time: Josef Albers at the Morgan

Anyone who has taken a painting class is likely familiar with the exercise of creating value studies, strips of tonal values ranging from dark to light. Having done so granted me an immediate familiarity with the preparatory studies comprising this insightful exhibition evidencing painter Josef Alber's creative process.

I confess that the works of Albers I'd seen—the renowned Homage to the Square series—never particularly captured my fancy, but the collection displayed here is a different story and, in fact, they are a crucial part of the narrative. They embody an experimental and playful aspect that I never would have surmised from the severity of the completed paintings, and indeed Albers describes these final paintings as solutions, whereas his sketches clearly manifest the pleasure he took in working through the problem with what he described as a trial-and-error approach.

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"Color Study for White Line Square." Photograph from 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Image courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum


Whereas my professor encouraged the gradual addition of white and black to a given color to expand its tonal range in two directions, Albers utilized only pure pigments straight from the tube, and seemingly took pride in achieving the effects he desired with the raw materials alone. The significance of this aspect is evident in his inscription of the color names and brands, sometimes penciled in the margin and sometimes scratched into the paint itself with the back end of his paintbrush. Additional notations by the artist further reveal his personal process; across the bottom of one work, my favorite: "try again."

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"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. Image via Joanne Mattera Art Blog


I also especially enjoyed the presentation of the truly experimental color sketches shown in cases, almost as though they were on the artist's worktable. As for the works hung on the walls, I wonder how Albers would have felt about the wide white mattes surrounding them, and whether he would have displayed them in this way. Albers obviously chose his colors with great deliberation, and his final paintings have no border. I wonder to what degree the formatting affects the eye's perception of the hues within, but to entertain such questions, at least, is fully compatible with Albers' own exploration.

Aesthetically, these sketches capture a spontaneity of application and an evolution in thought process making them, at least to me, infinitely more compelling than the ultimate paintings. Moreover, they truly enhanced my appreciation of Albers' body of work as a whole. Both an artifact and an integral part of Albers' process, they visually convey the genuine pleasure he found in juxtaposing color. The wall text includes quotes that demonstrate quite clearly how Albers marveled over the possibilities he discovered through the act of creating his work.

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"Variant / Adobe," 1947. Oil on blotting paper. 48.3 x 60.9 cm. © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York. Image via theartwolf.com


Though still relatively minimal, these studies are quite animated and possess a power of suggestion evocative of mood, time, and/or—in the case of his earlier Adobe series (above)—a particular location. Some are perhaps "only" color studies, pure and simple, but even these may conjure memories or inspire reflection in the viewer. Visitors might experience any range of impressions or reactions to these pieces, but even given the potential breadth of individual responses, I have a hard time understanding how these studies inspired two women I passed to animatedly discuss the relative merits of…wait for it…teapots.

As this exhibit entered its final days, the incredibly exciting Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich opened downstairs. With great pleasure I indulged in the first of its two rooms… I'll be heading back soon to see the rest, so stay tuned!

Joseph Albers in America: Painting on Paper runs from July 20-Oct. 14, 2012. The Morgan Library & Museum is found at 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street. Hours are: Tue.-Thu. 10:30am-5pm, Fri. 10:30am-9pm, Sat. 10am-6pm, Sun. 11am-6pm. General admission is $15, and $10 for children (under 16), seniors (65 and over), and students w/ current ID. Admission is free on Fridays from 7-9pm.

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