Exhibitions: Dare to be square

From 1949 until the day he died, Josef Albers painted nothing but squares. But he wasn't as good as Mondrian or Malevich, as a new show at Waddington's proves
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The Independent Culture
"ELEGANT AUSTERITY" at the Waddington Galleries is an exhibition with two objectives. Its first purpose is to show off the painting of Josef Albers, for Leslie Waddington is now the representative of his estate. The second is to present a range of abstract, minimal and conceptual art that may be said to have an affinity with Albers's ideas. I'm not sure that we can make a real connection between the Bauhaus survivor and the work of Mondrian, or Ben Nicholson, or Lucio Fontana. None the less, this consistently interesting anthology nudges us into all sorts of enquiries about the fortunes of abstraction.

Opinions about Albers vary, especially among other painters. Some people regard him only as a curiosity of modern art; others claim that he was a master. He is regarded as narrow-minded. Another view is that he was an inspired educator. I personally think him a minor artist, though certainly with historical importance. He provides a link between European abstraction of an old-fashioned sort and advanced American art of the 1960s. His biography maps out this course. He was born in Germany in 1888, was a student and subsequently a teacher at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s, then emigrated to America in 1933. There he continued to teach, at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina until 1949 and subsequently at Yale. He died in 1976.

There are some artists - a disappearing breed these days - who cannot function unless they are in an art-school environment. This is not a question of earning a living - though that comes into it - but a matter of temperament. It seems that Albers liked to be surrounded by creative people who were themselves bound by an educational framework. They would have to listen to his theories, which might otherwise not have attracted an audience. And he could continually, day after day, assert his individuality and probity while observing that all around him there were slipshod improvisers. Albers was a vastly experienced teacher, but not necessarily a popular one. Robert Rauschenberg went to Black Mountain because he had heard that Albers was "the greatest disciplinarian in the United States". But that liking for discipline evidently had no effect on Rauschenberg, who turned out to be quite the sloppiest American painter of the 1950s. Might not the beneficiary of such a relationship be the teacher rather than the pupil?

The eager and chaotic nature of art made by young Americans confirmed Albers's feeling that everything he personally did was correct. From 1949 until he died, he painted only squares, usually quite small ones, with two subsidiary squares within the main picture. Each square has its own uniform colour. They are painted on hardboard, and there is no sign of any painterly handling. Everyone of them is called Homage to the Square. There are hundreds of these pictures. Painters who don't like Albers say that there's an obstinate madness in any artist who confines him- or herself to such procedures. In Albers's case, though, we find successful and even lively art. That's because the paintings, seven of them in all, have been so well chosen. The quality of Albers's pictures went up and down. We often see bad ones. Though not in the present show, which is an excellent introduction to his work.

Historically, Albers's art may descend from Black Square, Kasimir Malevich's Russian Supremacist painting. The Waddington show also features two Malevich drawings from 1915-16. The pencil-marks are faded, but one can still sense the immense and concentrated energy Malevich poured into his spare geometry. There's one other significant painting from the first half of our century. It's Mondrian's Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (1927). This beautiful little picture is also a square (Mondrian's favoured format in his classic years) and it relies only on the primary colours, plus white and black. Albers was obviously more interested in colour than Mondrian was. Yet Mondrian's is by far a better work of art. We find in it a higher level of aesthetic, even metaphysical, belief. Albers falls beneath such a standard.

He is also a lesser artist than another Black Mountain student, Kenneth Noland, who took inspired chances with colour and format, quite alien to Albers's cautious vision. Noland is not represented in the Waddington show. None the less, he provides a standard by which other simple-composition painters of the 1960s are to be judged. Most of them fall down when we look at their use of colour: minimal art is in general produced by artists who lack a colour sense. Ad Reinhardt is an extreme case of this disability. The exhibition includes one of his formerly famous all-black paintings. You can just about see a cross in it, made by the stretcher bars. Otherwise, it's unrelieved black. But not as black as night. The night has more presence.

The grumpiness and hostility in Reinhardt's painting contrasts with a picture by the Italian Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1961). On the face of it, this all-green canvas represents aggression, for it's been slashed down the middle. But in truth, the painting is a lovely bit of "experimental art", to use the phrase of the day. The cut is a way of drawing, and of introducing black to an otherwise monochrome picture. I've looked at the back of this canvas. Fontana simply pinned a length of black gauze to the stretcher. From the front, though, one peers into something more mysterious than Reinhardt could create.

Fontana was a true aesthete, whatever odd things he did. I'm a lover of his art, and so, I suspect, is Leslie Waddington. He wouldn't otherwise be in the exhibition, for he has nothing in common with Albers whatsoever. Don Judd contributes a sculpture which is a direct tribute to Albers. There are other three-dimensional pieces by Carl Andrew and Dan Flavin, a poor drawing by Eva Hesse, who was once an Albers student, drawings and a painting by Agnes Martin, and paintings by artists of a new generation, Ian Davenport and Zebedee Jones.

Waddington's, W1 (0171 437 8611), to 14 Mar.

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