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PhotOpinion: A Review of Josef Albers in Mexico at the Guggenheim Museum

Josef Albers, VARIANT/ADOBE, ORANGE FRONT. Photo credit for all article images: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Judy Rosenblatt is a member of New York City’s Park West Camera Club who reviews photography exhibits for the club’s award-winning monthly newsletter. Park West (parkwestcameraclub.org) just celebrated its 80th anniversary as one of New York City’s oldest camera clubs. With their kind permission, Honeysuckle is reposting this review of Josef Albers in Mexico, which is on view at the Guggenheim Museum until March 28, 2018.

Although Josef Albers (b. 1888) was the most abstract of painters, this is an exhibit of great photographic interest, because it shows how he used photography to inform and inspire his highly abstract art. Albers and his wife, Anni, were German Bauhaus artists—she a weaver—who fled the Nazis and came to America in 1933 to teach at Black Mountain College. In 1950 Albers became head of the Department of Design at Yale University, and his teaching at both schools influenced many prominent artists—among them Richard Serra and Eva Hesse.

Color and its various interactions was Albers’ great obsession. He said, “When you really understand that each color is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as color.” Albers is most famous for his series of over a thousand paintings entitled Homage to the Square in which a few nested squares of varied hues and shades illuminate his visual philosophy. He worked on this series from 1949 until his death in 1976. Of this series, he said that geometry was “only the dish to hold my craziness about color in.”

Josef Albers, from HOMAGE TO THE SQUARE, on display at The Guggenheim Museum

So how, you may ask, did black and white photography play such an important part in this colorist’s development?

Soon after arriving in the United States, Albers and his wife traveled to Mexico and became enamored by the structures at its ancient sites—pyramids, temples, staircases, friezes. The geometric forms and “truth to materials” they found there resonated with their own approach to design, bridging cultural differences. Over the years they took thirteen trips to Mexico and Albers came home with many photographs. He cut up his contact sheets and arranged them in grid-like collages, along with postcards of the sites, so that he could best derive from them ideas for his paintings; occasionally there would be an enlargement, which would stand as a photograph in its own right. This work was never previously put on display.

Despite his claim that geometry was “only the dish,” it seems to me that Albers was also obsessed with geometric forms and patterns, and his development can be seen as experiments with the interplay of geometry and color, with the square being the most “pure” distillation he arrived at. This exhibit illustrates his artistic journey by juxtaposing Albers’s paintings and photographs, so that Mexico’s influence on him can be easily fathomed.

Josef Albers, Mexican-inspired geometric painting, on display at The Guggenheim Museum

It is not organized chronologically, but rather by six regions he visited. For example, in the Monte Alban area, photographs of Mexican adobe dwellings are echoed in his Variant/Adobe series (1946-66). Here, within a horizontal rectilinear format, larger shapes are punctuated with two small vertical shapes that bring to mind doorways and windows. In one work, “Luminous Day,” blues and orangey pinks entranced me with their shimmering effect.

In the section on Uxmal I saw more small pieces that could stand on their own as striking black and white photographs, but for the most part it seemed that the photos and collages were taking-off points for the paintings, onto which the pigment was applied with a palette knife. (Albers must have found some way to keep his hard edges from bleeding into each other and creating a mess!) One section of the exhibit was devoted to examples of Homage to the Square paintings, all in warm yellow hues. I am a fan of Albers’ in-depth color explorations, so I enjoyed this exhibit on many levels. Even for those with other tastes, I think this exhibit is revealing as it calls attention to photography as a tool and inspiration for work in other media, as well as an end in itself.

See Josef Albers in Mexico at the Guggenheim Museum now through April 4, 2018. Visit guggenheim.org for more details.

Self-portrait of Judy, with camera

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