Spotlight Essay: Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Aurora, 1951–55
April 2007; updated 2016
Director of Education and Public Programs, Portland Art Museum, Oregon
Formerly Coordinator of Education and Public Programs, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
In 1963 Josef Albers published his Interaction of Color, representing one of the few serious analytical attempts by a twentieth-century artist to revise and extend existing color theory.1 As stated in the publication’s introduction, it represents the artist’s articulation of “an experimental way of studying and of teaching color,” placing experiential practice before academic theory. Albers continues: “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”2 The essential instability of color, which Albers described as “the discrepancy between the physical fact and the psychological effect” of a work of art, was repeatedly manifested in his seminal series Homage to the Square (1950–76). This series of abstract paintings and prints has often been seen as the culmination of Albers’s experimentation with color and light, a central focus throughout his career as an artist and teacher. In works such as Homage to the Square: Aurora and throughout the series, Albers negotiated the opposition between the physical materiality and subjective phenomena of color.
Albers painted more than one thousand Homage to the Square works during the last twenty-six years of his life, and many more were produced as lithographs and screen prints. Albers often used oil paint straight from the manufacturer’s tube, precisely applying thin coats with a palette knife to the rough side of a Masonite panel. He carefully recorded the technical details of each painting on the back of the panel, including the dimensions, the names of the paints used, and any varnishes or other materials applied to the surface of the painting. Through the self-imposed restriction of the square and his methodical articulation of color, Albers’s work moves against acknowledging the personal, expressive hand of the artist.
This tendency toward objectivity, however, is complicated by the paintings’ strong “psychic effect,” as Albers referred to it. For each arrangement of superimposed squares, the artist selected and positioned colors based on their interactions and “relationality.”3 In Aurora, the colors migrate across their borders; while they do not physically overlap in the painting, a slight unevenness at the edges heightens the ability of the colors to jump across these boundaries. Strong contrasts between hues—as well as alternating squares of light reflection and light absorption—draw our attention to the edges as “hot points” of activity.4 As contrasting hues interact, the color of an inner square jumps toward the outer boundary of the next square out, and vice versa. For instance, the yellow of the innermost square can be perceived along the outermost boundary of the gray square, and likewise with other color relations throughout the painting. Through this performance of color, combined with the slightly reflective surface of some of the alternating squares, the luminescent colors seem to glow and emit their own light. The vertical asymmetry in the composition also suggests movement among the colored squares, with the blue square receding and the yellow square projecting forward in a telescopic manner.
As the viewer enters into a dialogue with Albers’s Homage paintings, these color interactions exceed the material form of the artwork. “Painting is color acting,” Albers wrote. “The act is to change character and behavior, mood and tempo.”5 The Homage paintings engage the viewer’s process and understanding of visual perception, presenting ambivalent forms that demand from the viewer different decisions. Albers noted, “Some spectators are led to notice their preferred color or colors first. Others begin with ‘firsts’ in quality (i.e., high intensities in light and hue) or ‘firsts’ in quantity, measured either by extension or recurrence. . . . When it comes to reading advancing and receding color, there will rarely be agreement—regardless of convincing decisions offered by theories based on color temperature or wave length.”6
A major source of inspiration for Albers’s treatment of color as subjective phenomena was Goethe’s 1810 Farbenlehre (Study of color), adapted at the Bauhaus (where Albers was both a student and a teacher) through Johannes Itten’s own teaching and experiments with color.7 Of particular interested to Albers was Goethe’s examination of the phenomenon known as “simultaneous contrast”—the tendency of colors to shift based on their adjacent surroundings. Albers capitalized on the human response to these color relationships, evoking philosophical, expressive, or emotional reactions to color.8 In later works in the Homage series, he used closely related hues of the same color, requiring a more extended period of contemplation from the viewer.
Albers certainly placed an emphasis on the autonomy of color and its pure perception in the eyes of the spectator. As described by Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Homage series “annihilates anything beyond itself” and “exists only in the here and now of visual experience.”9 Yet at the same time Albers also directed the material facts of the painting to preface and advance a particular subjective response, and the artist himself became an active player in this game of artistic activity. In Aurora, the notes on the back of the panel record Albers’s path in creating this painting, including his mixing of some paint colors, layering of paint and varnish, and later overpainting with additional color and varnish.10 While these notes are not available to the viewer, his elaborate and instrumental process acts to govern the range of effects that can be culled from this particular painting.
Furthermore, Albers assigned his own descriptive subtitles for many of the works in this series after they were completed. In addition to Aurora, subtitles such as Apparition, Kind Regards, New Hope, and Tranquil suggest and reinforce certain transcendental or meditative responses in the viewer. Aurora references the Roman goddess of the dawn and generates associations with the warm glow of a morning sunrise. Homage to the Square: Aurora is a prime example of an Homage that achieves an unexpected spiritual or mythological ambiguity. Yet for other works Albers provided subtitles such as Saturated, Saturated II, R III-a 6, and R I c-i, countering the transcendental associations these paintings evoke with an emphasis on the formal “facts” of color and manufacturer’s codes. This constant flux between the objective and subjective characteristics of color defines the core of Albers’s project to translate the instability of color into artistic form.
Through his Homage series Albers established an unresolved dialogue between the material facts of the painting (nested squares, oil paint, manufactured colors) and its expressive subjectivity—between “the physical fact” and “the psychic effect.” On our initial perception of these works, we create the conditions for an exchange in much the same way that we return a serve in a game of tennis (to borrow a metaphor from Nicolas Bourriaud).11 The perceptual exercises in Albers’s series experiment with and complicate the relationship between artist, artwork, and audience, drawing attention to this relationality within the reduced format of strict geometry and color.
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Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Aurora, 1951-55. Oil on masonite, 40 1/8 x 40 ½”. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1966. WU 4294. Artists Rights Society (ARS).
“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 about color."
Josef Albers was instrumental in bringing the tenets of European modernism, particularly those associated with the Bauhaus, to America. His legacy as a teacher of artists, as well as his extensive theoretical work proposing that color, rather than form, is the primary medium of pictorial language, profoundly influenced the development of modern art in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.
Albers's 1963 book Interaction of Color provided the most comprehensive analysis of the function and perception of color to date and profoundly influenced art education and artistic practice, especially Color Field Painting and Minimalism, in the twentieth century.
His series Homage to the Square, produced from 1949 until his death, used a single geometric shape to systematically explore the vast range of visual effects that could be achieved through color and spatial relationships alone.
Albers's art and theories were widely disseminated to generations of artists and art-school faculty through his teachings at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale University, and they provided the theoretical basis for the development of non-objective art during and after the age of Abstract Expressionism.
Most Important Art
Josef Albers Artworks in Focus:
Homage to the Square is the signature series of over 1000 related works, which Albers began in 1949 and continued to develop until his death in 1976. Such sustained attention to a single aspect of painting reflects his conviction that insight is only attained through "continued trying and critical repetition." This early work exemplifies his basic approach to exploring the mutability of human perception and the range of optical and psychological effects that colors alone can produce depending on their position and proximity. Albers chose a single, repeated geometric shape, which he insisted was devoid of symbolism, to systematically experiment with the "relativity" of color, how it changes through juxtaposition, placement, and interaction with other colors, generating the illusion of attraction, resistance, weight, and movement. As in his earlier monochromatic and linear studies, this series explores the potential of static two-dimensional media to invoke dynamic three-dimensional space.Read More ...
Josef Albers Overview Continues Below
Josef Albers was born March 19, 1888, in Bottrop, Germany. From 1905 to 1908 he studied to become a teacher in Buren, teaching in Westphalian primary schools from 1908 to 1913. After attending the Konigliche Kunstschule in Berlin from 1913 to 1915, he was certified to teach art. Albers studied lithography in Essen and attended the Academy in Munich. In 1920 at the age of 32, Albers entered the Bauhaus, a school in Weimar that was committed to exploring the relationship between the arts and technological society and emphasized the integration of architecture, fine art, and craft.
Albers initially jointed the Bauhaus as a maker of stained glass and in 1922, as a Bauhausgeselle (journeyman), he was charged with running the Bauhaus glass workshop. In 1923 he began to teach the Vorkurs, a basic design course. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, he became Bauhausmeister (professor), teaching alongside fellow artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In addition to working in glass and metal, he designed furniture and typography.
After the Nazis forced the Bauhaus to close in 1933, the architect Philip Johnson, then a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art, secured positions for Albers and his wife Anni Albers at the experimental art school, Black Mountain College, where he headed the painting program from 1933 to 1949.
Black Mountain College was a liberal arts college with an innovative and progressive curriculum that repositioned the study and practice of art from the margin to the center of the undergraduate program, and Albers's preliminary art course in materials and form was one of only two courses required of all students, regardless of major. Although Black Mountain's focus was not the training of professional artists, the emphasis placed on the centrality of art to everyday life, and its integrative and collaborative approach to art-making, attracted creative students and faculty in every media, from painting and literature to dance and architecture. Albers brought the theories and teaching methods of the Bauhaus to Black Mountain, but he was influenced in turn by the progressive educational philosophy of American philosopher John Dewey, with its emphasis on experimentation and direct experience as central to the learning experience. Dewey spent several extended residencies at Black Mountain College in 1935-36 and was a frequent guest in Albers's classes.
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While teaching at Black Mountain College, Albers continued to develop his aesthetic theories through his art practice. He began the Variant/Adobe series (ca. 1947), which systematically explored the range of visual effects made possible by subtle variations in color, shape, and positioning. He also mounted more than 20 solo shows in various media in American galleries, including glass work from the Bauhaus period, as well as graphic art, drawings, and oil paintings.
In 1949 Albers left Black Mountain College to serve as the chairman of the Design Department at Yale University from 1950 to 1958 where he taught Richard Anuszkiewicz and Eva Hesse. While lecturing at Yale, Albers began his most famous body of work, the series Homage to the Square, an exercise on the optical effects of color within the confines of a uniform square shape.
After retiring from Yale in 1958 at the age of 70, his former teacher and colleague Walter Gropius invited Albers to design a mural for the interior of the new Graduate Center at Harvard University. This led to other important mural commissions, including Two Portals (1961) at the Time and Life Building and Manhattan (1963) at the Pan Am Building, both in New York.
In addition to painting, printmaking, murals, and architectural commissions, Albers published poetry, articles, and books on art theory. His best-known book, Interaction of Color, was and is still a widely used text in art education and has recently been reissued by Yale University.
Late Years and Death
After leaving Yale University in 1958, Albers continued to teach, giving guest lectures at colleges and universities throughout the country. An exhibition of Homage to the Square, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, traveled from 1965 to 1967 to parts of South America, Mexico, and the United States. In 1971 Albers was the first living artist to be honored with a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Albers lived and worked in New Haven, Connecticut, alongside his wife and fellow artist, Anni Albers, until his death on March 25, 1976.
Albers's most profound impact on the history and practice of modern art was his transformation of art education and pedagogy, which he believed was the key to developing a future audience for art. Central to this pedagogy was a non-dogmatic, un-hierarchical, "scientific" approach based on observation and experimentation. As a teacher his stated goal was to "open the eyes," of students by disrupting ingrained habits of perception and considering forms apart from their conventional associations, reduced to their basic characteristics (line, shape, material, color). His strategies of "defamiliarization," such as drawing with the non-dominant hand, mirror writing, exploring optical illusions, and representing "negative" spaces, sharpened visual observation, precision, and awareness and are now an accepted part of the academic training of visual artists.
Of course, this approach to modernism was practiced by highly prominent students such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, Ray Johnson, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Eva Hesse, and John Chamberlain.