The Sacred Modernist: Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist.
Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork
5 April-8 July 2012
With the official opening on Holy Thursday in the Roman Catholic calendar and a running time that includes the week of the Fiftieth International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, the Lewis Glucksman Gallery has chosen its dates wisely for this exhibition. Still, the theme is risky in a predominantly secular culture that has come to equate the headline 'Catholic' with abuse of the most vulnerable.
The director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and curator of this exhibition, Nicolas Fox Weber, attempts to persuade viewers to reconsider Albers' work in the light of his Catholic faith. This is no easy feat since Albers is usually associated with quasi scientific investigations of colour and of optical effects, and not with the spiritual. The exhibition spans Albers' creative years, from a 1911 ink drawing of a church steeple to his final Homage to the Square, 1976, painted in the year of his death. There are ample opportunities to revel in the development of Albers' vision of life his delight with geometric lines; his search for the harmony of shapes as well as their playful possibilities; his preoccupation with the relationships of colours, their rhythm and timbre.
While the exhibition displays a number of Albers' works for churches--from the stained glass window entitled Rosa Mystical Ora Pr[o] Nobis,1918, that was reproduced for this exhibit to his optically illusive designs for The Washburn College Bible, 1979--it is a loyalty to his vision and a steadfast dedication to exploring all possibilities with shape and colour, that elicits the notion that his childhood faith might have remained firmly planted in his life and work. In essence, his work begins to resemble prayer--that intentional attempt to centre on the ineffable, to gain a wisdom that only the quietening of one's thoughts can provide. For example, the design in Albers' In Open Air, 1936, is deceptively simple with its green grass of colour towards the bottom and sky blue above. Overlaid with a perfectly lined black square and an unbroken angular pattern in white, the lines in the piece move optically, defying physicality. It is this simplicity, matched with a teasing visual puzzle that moves the viewer to consider more closely this mystery and ultimately, to rest in it.
In an interview from 1968, Albers stated, 'I make you see more than there is ... Absolutely something else.' (1) At that time, Albers had been working on his Homage to the Square series for 19 years. The Glucksman exhibition finishes with a display of 15 of these vibrant gems. Similar in design, these paintings of nests of three or four squares can, at first, appear quite austere. Yet, it is in this atmosphere of restraint that the seeker can more easily access the divine. These simple paintings are wholly captivating with the illusory movements ignited by Albers' precise colours. In his final Homage to the Square, 1976, it is the pulsing shades of blue and green, the softening of the sharp edges of the square and the misting together of colours that gradually draws the mind to rest in quiet contemplation. In that same interview in 1968, Albers said, 'My things have the look of [Orthodox] icons' and certainly they might be near perfect manifestations of the often-used description of icons as windows to the divine.
For many years, the Catholic Church has largely ignored abstract art, preferring to utilise representational work instead. With Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, this trend appears to be changing. In a discussion about which artists might be appropriate for a Vatican-held exhibition, the Cardinal stated for Vatican radio that the desire is 'to involve everyone who is wondering about what goes beyond the immediate horizon, especially those artists who seek to make the invisible visible.' While it remains unclear whether Albers should be labelled a 'Catholic artist,' one hopes that Catholic Church leaders will take note of this exquisite display of modern art and consider how they might better utilise such art to aid the experience of a life-giving encounter with the divine.
Donna Mae Linton is Committee Secretary of Arts & Christianity Ireland
(1.) Oral history interview with Josef Albers, 22 June--5 July 5 1968 , Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.