ART / A real old square in the classroom: Josef Albers: influential man, but how does his work look now?

Tim Hilton
Saturday 07 May 1994 23:02

JOSEF ALBERS is the artist best known for the series of paintings Homage to the Square, which he began in 1950, when he was 62, and continued until his death in 1976. There are over a thousand of these pictures, and many more in the form of prints. All of them have a format of three or four squares within the square of the canvas itself, and these are painted in flat colours that sometimes are close- hued and sometimes are contrasting. It looks as if once the series began, it became obsessive and without an ending-point. The variations of colour could go on forever: certainly they occupied this extraordinarily dedicated artist for a quarter of a century.

Modern art has given us a number of artists with similarly enclosed programmes. Often they are mad, mystic, or convinced that they are saying all that art can possibly say. This was not the case with Albers. He knew very well what he was about and if there was an element of mysticism in his character, what's wrong with that? The clue to his personality is elsewhere. Albers was a pedagogue, one of those people who cannot imagine being an artist without also being a teacher in an institution.

The Mead Gallery is rather a good place to show his work. Midlands listings magazines regularly call this venue the 'Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry' but in fact it's part of the Arts Centre at Warwick University, on the campus but with a nice balance between student activities and the world beyond.

Within the Mead Gallery there's a video machine on which you can study three accounts of Albers's career, and a far more severe terminal which confronts the visitor with Interaction of Colour, a computerised version of his celebrated 1963 book. The book itself is now out of print, and can be consulted only on interactive CD-ROM (Yale University Press, pounds 90, compatible with Macintosh computers only). To present a book about colour on a screen is certainly a technological advance, but such innovations evade the point. They tell you many things about colour theory, yet they cannot prove the quality of Albers's art. Only the actual works can do that. Interaction of Colour was published at the mid-point of the Homage to the Square series. Its exercises illuminate the paintings, but don't make them any better.

Albers's life-pattern was part of the great and tragic movement of intellectuals from pre- war Europe to America. He was from the Ruhr, in Germany, studied as an art teacher before he studied art itself (as apparently could be done in Germany at that time), then was at the School of Applied Art in Essen before joining the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1920. Albers was the longest-serving of all the Bauhaus teachers. He was there until the Nazis closed the school in 1933, then went to the liberal and experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he and his wife, Anni, another Bauhaus teacher, were to remain for the next 16 years. The Homage to the Square paintings were begun just as he left for Yale, where he taught until his retirement in 1960.

Albers brought German culture to America, but I wonder how much he told his students about his early days. Among the revelations of this exhibition are photographs taken at the Bauhaus and a number of drawings that predate his arrival at the modernist school. I find these sheets impressive. They make one think what to Albers himself would be unthinkable, that he might have been a more original, or at least flexible, artist if he had continued with figuration. As a draughtsman, Albers was affected by Matisse and other Frenchmen, yet he is still a German through and through. He portrays his own features in the tradition of the post-Durer self-portrait while other sheets recall Adolf von Menzel and Albers's near-contemporary, the underrated Werner Heldt.

Albers's Bauhaus photographs were not exhibited in his lifetime. They resemble those of his colleagues in the German school, but have one limitation. So serious and formal was the Bauhaus ethos that in photography alone do we find its students and staff having fun, making deliberate mistakes, pushing innovation sideways rather than towards classical design.

Albers's prints are not of this sort. Always they look toward abstract repetition, whether in snow-covered railway lines, slats in a row of identical garden chairs, or shadows that become more abstract by virtue of reiterating but not revealing the shape of the person whose shadow has been cast.

At the Bauhaus Albers was converted not so much to abstract art as to abstract design. Now his teaching became, by all accounts, both powerful and inventive. With paper, glass, matchboxes and many other materials his students were made to find forms by themselves. Such forms reappeared as furniture, house and factory decoration, wallpaper and so on. Albers himself had a solo exhibition of glass work in 1932 but was otherwise not tempted to show as an individual artist. What in any case might he exhibit? For he did no painting. He did not become a painter until he got to America.

It's not so much that America liberated his pictorial gifts, more that in North Carolina there was no competition. Textbooks regularly present Albers as a pioneer of abstraction in America, but he avoided New York, seldom contributed to group shows and was uneasy in the company of painters unless they were his students, ie not independent artists at all. I urge Warwick students not to feel pious before Albers's Black Mountain work. The catalogue respectfully tells us how he sent his classes into the fields to bring leaves and suchlike into the studios. Big deal. Albers's own paintings incorporating leaves are displayed. They are awful, the kind of dumb design that's no better when done by a teacher than it is when done by a student. So are his programmatic paintings of a treble clef shape repeated with colour variations. All this may be part of the history of art education, but it is not satisfying painting.

Albers's most interesting pictures were made in the mid-Thirties and they are interesting because he did not quite know what he was doing. Then there are some pleasant little studies that are reminiscent of Klee. Afterwards, certitude sets in and the coloured squares dominate. None of these paintings is poor and not one of them is inspired. On this showing they are better when larger and employing paler colours. I have no interest in being harsh toward Albers, but he produced nothing that would not be blown off the wall by his former Black Mountain student Kenneth Noland, who is truly an inspired colourist. The catalogue won't admit such comparisons, but they must be made. And why doesn't its bibliography include Martin Duberman's Black Mountain (1972), which is composed of interviews with the college's survivors? Is it because so many of Albers's pupils confess that they didn't like him? I hope there's a copy in the Warwick University library.

Josef Albers: Mead Gallery Arts Centre, Coventry (0203 523523) to 21 May. The show then goes on tour, to the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (26 Jun to 18 Sept) and the Norfolk Institute of Art, Norwich (26 Sept to 5 Nov).

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