Thursday, January 7, 2010
Exhibition Illustrates Albers’ Sphere of Influence
The Hirshhorn possesses one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of work by Josef Albers (b. Bottrop, Germany, 1888; d. New Haven, Conn., 1976). “Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration,” on view Feb 11-April 11, 2010, presents nearly 70 works spanning the artist’s 55-year career, many on view for the first time. Supplementing pieces from the museum’s holdings are key objects on loan from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Organized by senior curator Valerie Fletcher, the exhibition also includes documentary photographs and examples of Albers’ teaching aids, and concludes with a display of works by artists who knew, worked with, studied under or openly admired Albers.
“Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration” encompasses the artist’s distinguished career from 1917 to 1973. The exhibition begins with four early self-portrait prints dating from the years of World War I, followed by a group of boldly abstract compositions from Albers’ tenure at Germany’s revolutionary Bauhaus, where he taught alongside such remarkable modernists as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Albers participated in the school’s utopian aspiration to improve modern life through manufacturing and design—ideas that resonated throughout Albers’ career. The Hirshhorn’s show includes a series of black-and-white designs intended for mass production in glass, such as “6 and 3” (1931), and an illuminated display of eight glass panels, in which the artist modernized and transformed the medieval tradition of stained-glass windows, best characterized by “Fugue (B)” (1925-28).
Following the Nazi party’s rise to power, the Bauhaus was forced to close in 1933. Albers fled to the United States, where he was recruited to head the art program at the new Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, Albers introduced a modified Bauhaus curriculum and hired vanguard modernists as teachers. He enthusiastically taught his students how art could be made from virtually any material, which he demonstrated in some of his own works, such as three “Leaf Study” collages (c. 1940). Albers continued to advocate the clear structures of geometric abstraction, still mostly in black, white and primary colors, but was open to different stylistic approaches. He also briefly adopted the biomorphic forms associated with surrealism, as seen in the work “Proto-Form (B)” (1938).
In 1949, at the age of 62, Albers became chairman of the art school at Yale University, with a mandate to transform it from a conservative academic program to a proponent of modern concepts and applications. Believing firmly that colors have no inherent emotional associations, he meticulously explored their nuances and combinations in his work. He eventually limited the shape and number of his forms, which resulted in a standardized format that he called “Homage to the Square,” for which he is best known. Two dozen “Homage to the Square” compositions fill the central gallery in the exhibition, inviting viewers to examine the subtle complexities of their perceptions. The vivid yellow-orange-reds of “Glow” (1966) startle the eye, while the pale grays of “Nacre” (1965) suggest cool neutrality. These images create optical illusions, challenging viewers’ visual acuity. This series concludes with the artist’s vivid red-print duo, “In Honor of the Hirshhorn Museum,” on view for the first time since the museum opened in 1974.
In addition, this exhibition includes examples from Albers’ “Structural Constellation” series of reliefs (1954–64), which anticipated op art with their linear patterns. The reliefs’ commonplace material—laminated plastic—also fulfils the utopian goal of making art affordable to everyone. The two largest paintings on view, both titled “Variant” (1973), were donated by the artist’s wife and foundation in 1979.
Albers remained active and influential until his death in 1976, and many of his pedagogical innovations have become standard methodology in art schools across the country. His explorations of abstract form and color also inspired and stimulated generations of artists and designers. Shortly after his arrival in America, he became a co-founder of the American Abstract Artists group and participated in exhibitions across the country, from New York to Michigan and beyond. The Hirshhorn’s exhibition ends with an array of works by colleagues, students and admirers, among them: weavings by the artist’s wife, Anni Albers; abstract constructions by Burgoyne Diller; streamlined images of labor by Jacob Lawrence; a large op art painting by Richard Anuskiewicz; textured creations by Eva Hesse and Robert Rauschenberg; and a minimalist stacked wall sculpture by Donald Judd.
On the opening night of the exhibition, Thursday, Feb. 11, Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, discusses the artist’s life and work and his relationship with Joseph Hirshhorn. On Thursday, March 11, an “In Conversation” dialogue will take place between Ivan Chermayeff, a noted designer, illustrator and artist and founding partner of the graphic design firm Chermayeff & Geismar, and Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek. They will discuss Albers’ impact on Chermayeff’s career in the arts. On Thursday, April 8, senior curator Fletcher will deliver a lecture titled “Maximum Effect from Minimum Means: Josef Albers,” examining how Albers tirelessly pursued the elusive subtleties of materials, form and especially color. Each of these programs will be held at 7 p.m. in the Lerner Room. Several Friday Gallery Talks, which are informal conversations with artists and scholars that focus on one work or theme during a half-hour lunchtime tour, will accompany this exhibition. Visit www.hirshhorn.si.edufor more information.