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Josef Albers: paintings, drawings, prints.


Josef Albers's (1888-1976) artwork, while concise in nature, allows complexity to reveal itself with prolonged looking. What is initially declared through simple means--some lines or a few colors--is free of graphic stasis. Nothing in an Albers stays still. Difference counts, and to this end Albers worked in series and variations, his preference for which, rather than for singularly exemplary works, was evident since the early 1910s. The multitude of works on paper that he produced, including drawings, gouaches, linocuts, etchings, lithographs, and oil paintings, mostly belong in groups, as they are shown here.

A number of paintings on board, from the "Homage to the Square" series begun in 1950, are brilliantly installed in the first room of the exhibition. Such is the radiance of color from these paintings that, on entering the room, it is hard to believe that the visual effect comes not from some projected natural or artificial light, but from the work itself. Color is the most open area of exploration for painting today. There is a type of color available to painting that exists nowhere else--that cannot occur in film, photography, or digital media--and that is what we see here.

The dynamic of each painting is determined by just about everything that is present and by a lot of things that are not. In "Homage to the Square: Receptive" (1961, oil on board), the shifting of surface quality, from slow dense absorbency to flickering brightness, is dependent upon a limited range of color: soft ochre yellow through cream white to pale gray. The point at which the gaze is fixed and the duration of that exact attention determines the appearance of hue and surface. And when the painting is viewed obliquely, this offers something else again: the support reveals itself, as do varying degrees of shine due to more or less oil in the paint. Albers transforms the haptic into light and space, while paradoxically acknowledging the materiality of each object: here, the visible surface of each board is the side that is unpolished and not typically used.

Looking at these paintings together is like looking at a group of portraits, and in fact Albers believed that the simplest of geometric forms actually look back at the viewer like a face. I was surprised to find myself thinking of Piero della Francesca (1415-1492), and that thought did not go away. The intuitive mathematical precision of both Albers and Piero is not unlike that of Glenn Gould in performing J. S. Bach's keyboard music. In all cases, the progression of time in intervals is made all the more real by the texture of surface, the pressure applied by fingers, or the sound of the playing.

A second room of studies, graphic works, and archival photographs complements the first room by addressing the expansive variety of Albers's oeuvre. Two extraordinary working drawings on graph paper hang nearby in the gallery's office. These drawings, though characteristically geometric, are unusually animated and employ a cursory and fluid line that notes changes to be made. In an untitled engraving from around 1966 on Resopal (a synthetic laminate patented in 1930 and used in kitchens), Albers turns and reconfigures a linear, angled, impossible structure of white lines on a black surface. It makes sense momentarily as one configuration, only to reposition itself as another. As with Albers's paintings, it is we who, through our perceptions, do that moving. In the pleasure of this activity, our internal thought and sense processes are made visible.

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Title Annotation:ARTSEEN
Author:Rhodes, David
Publication:The Brooklyn Rail
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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