Abstract Critical

Interaction, Reaction: Josef Albers in Black and White

Written by Katrina Blannin

Josef ALBERS, Homage to the Square, 1962, 24 x 24 in / 61 x 61 cm, oil on masonite.  ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

Josef ALBERS, Homage to the Square, 1962, 24 x 24 in / 61 x 61 cm, oil on masonite. ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

 I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colours anymore, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
 
[…]
 
I wanna see your face painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I wanna see the sun blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black, yeah!
 

It has often been suggested that black is not a colour – an anti-colour. In Jagger’s lyrics black paint is a phenomenon: a metaphorical substance with which to ‘blot’ out all life: life is colour, black is death and grief: the end, outer space and the big void. Fairly obvious perhaps but if this is the case then what is white, another kind of nothing, another kind of infinite space, another kind of death? Then anything black in that space becomes the positive and no longer the negative. As with most song lyrics Jagger’s crazy words really only make sense when he sings them with the band and I urge you to watch the Ready Steady Go film in all its glorious earnest serious angst. It had to be in black and white of course: the construction of the ‘poem’ is beautifully short and avoids the usual verse-chorus format: the filming is inspired. Mick says he doesn’t know what it is all about, except perhaps the funeral of a young girl; it just evolved in the studio somehow and seemed good at the time: acid trips, a sitar and the thumping of organ pedals all adding to this tenebrous song.

Josef ALBERS, Structural Constellation N-37 , 1964, 20 x 26 1/4 in / 50.8 x 66.7 cm, machine engraving on black vinylite mounted on board.  ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

Josef ALBERS, Structural Constellation N-37 , 1964, 20 x 26 1/4 in / 50.8 x 66.7 cm, machine engraving on black vinylite mounted on board. ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

In the exquisitely designed and produced Waddington Custot catalogue for the Josef Albers show, Black and White, the main text is written by Nicholas Fox Weber, Executive Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and is a joy to read. Here he bases his exploration on his conversations with Leslie Waddington and honestly sets down his thoughts on new references and tangents partly supplied by Waddington (whom he describes as one of those rare art dealers who actually thinks with his eyes): Rilke and colour, the Lascaux cave drawings, Guernica, Seurat’s Conte crayon drawings, Matisse’s lino cut prints as well as Albers’ own early figurative drawings and prints, perhaps shamefully, hidden away in a basement until after his death. The piece finishes with a reference to one of those first pen and ink drawings Albers did in 1911 of a church and two houses, Stadtlohn, which ‘…dwells on black and white reversals.’ He goes on: There is no logical reason for some windows to be shown with white mullions and black panes, and others to have white panes and black mullions. That is no reason except for the sense of play, the pleasure of looking, the love of rhythm, of “this” and then “that”. When I saw the diptych photograph Vor meinem Fenster, 1931-2, black twigs against white snow next to white hoar frosted twigs against black grass, I immediately identify with these hard to get out of your head visual obsessions.

Josef ALBERS, Untitled, (Tenayuca, Mexico), 1937, 9 3/4 x 7 in / 24.8 x 17.8 cm, gelatin silver print.  ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

Josef ALBERS, Untitled, (Tenayuca, Mexico), 1937, 9 3/4 x 7 in / 24.8 x 17.8 cm, gelatin silver print. ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

My notes on the day:

graphic ‘tectonic’: a tricky word when you look up the definition: the geological word for construction but also: forces and conditions
skeletal pen and ink drawings: orange lined graph paper supporting architectural ribs of imaginary impossible constructions: graph lines give the black ink an oily tangerine shimmer.
deft thick and thin lines gradated to create a geometric perspective – liquid ink and a ruler? wobbly lines studies….still strong
optical shifting: black and white reversals again: Gestalt Perception
blue graph paper – now a cooler more studious black
why has the paper sun yellowed much more in some? – can I see cigarette burn marks?
 
Josef Albers: Black and White installation view.  ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

Josef Albers: Black and White installation view. ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

treble clef gouaches, a series of variants: broken paint, framed containment, penetrating contrasts: exposed sharp white, sooty blacks and lilac greys: a comparative syntax of figure field interplay emerging, can’t see a pattern
 
machine engravings: super shiny black vinylite mounted on wood, precision incisions white grooves: thin and thinner: hair lines, rotating rectilinear and curiously triangulated forms; ‘constellations’ floating in outer space… something cryptic here, sandblasted planes become not only matt but an inky deep sepia brown: now spatial illusions are further complicated; really working the eye
 
homage and adobe paintings on masonite: familiar format but the point comes across eloquently here with the reduced palette – with this hang we are able to differentiate the aubergine, night sky, shoe polish, ochre, sea green and plum blacks, black as night, black as coal and then all the warm yellowy, cool purplish, airy pink and pale mint greys: dead matts and oily sheens, the book is beautiful but seeing this work together with all its colour and tonal variants is the only way to really ‘get it’

 

From Interaction of Color:

‘If one is not able to distinguish the difference between a higher tone and a lower tone, one probably should not make music. If a parallel conclusion were to be applied to color, almost everyone would prove incompetent for its proper use. Very few are able to distinguish higher and lower light intensity between different hues. This is true despite our daily reading of numerous black and white pictures.’
 
Josef ALBERS, Variant / Adobe: "Marble Inlay" , 1958, 24 x 32 in / 61 x 81.3 cm, oil on masonite.  ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

Josef ALBERS, Variant / Adobe: “Marble Inlay” , 1958, 24 x 32 in / 61 x 81.3 cm, oil on masonite. ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

Of course when Josef was producing the book about colour relativity, intensity and transformation he was surrounded by mainly black and white photography and the show has some excellent and obviously useful examples of his own studies from the 1930s. It is certainly fascinating to stop and try and work out the tonal intensity of a colour as compared to the one next to it. Do artists do this anymore? I wonder sometimes. It’s pretty quick nowadays to switch a photo into black and white on the mobile phone.

Josef ALBERS, Stufen / Steps, 1931, 16 x 21 in / 40.6 x 53.3 cm, sandblasted opaque flashed glass.  ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

Josef ALBERS, Stufen / Steps, 1931, 16 x 21 in / 40.6 x 53.3 cm, sandblasted opaque flashed glass. ©2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York/DACS London

On re-reading some of his invaluable ‘lessons’ I am struck yet again by his forthright manner, clear thinking and logical conclusions: all this, in order to get to the ‘desired effect’. But what is that? Maybe this is the conundrum; the really tricky bit, the missing link – knowing exactly what the link was in his own works.

My day had begun with an interesting couple of hours visiting Peter Lowe, the eminent systems artist, where I chose two small jewel-like Perspex reliefs in black and white on a grey base for a show we are in. We discussed the difference between ‘construction’ and ‘assemblage’, and Lowe suggested that a construction has to be formed from building-blocks made by the artist, whether or not based upon mathematical sequence, geometry, symmetry and the like, whereas an assemblage comes from the grouping of pre-existing, unrelated objects. I think he is probably right, how can a work be a construction if there is no building block, brick, unit or module with which to construct? This discussion certainly gave me a new slant for looking at Albers but I will always enjoy it for what it is. I am now looking forward to an equally well-considered and stunningly well-produced exhibition of Anni Albers. Leslie?

‘Josef Albers: Black and White’, was on at Waddington Custot from the 6th of May to the 4th of June.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Tania said…

    Many thanks for this article though its a pity it wasn’t published a bit earlier as I may have been able to visit the show (not aware of the exhibition until reading this article!). The subject of ‘black’ is worth further discussion for sure. Some time ago I read about a lesson Eva Hesse gave in which she asked students to paint a ‘colourful painting using only black’ – I’ve always been intrigued by this idea, perhaps it originated from Albers (though I’m none too certain on the connections amongst these artists). On Foundation course one of the most interesting aspects of the painting module was learning to mix black. I suspect this has pretty much gone in art school now but it remains an intriguing area and surely affects how we both ‘see’ and consider colour in painting.

    Agreed, an Anni Albers show would be great!