A small but fascinating exhibition, Albers / Albums, at Minus Space (98 Fourth Street [doorbell 28], Brooklyn) through January 30th, shows the seven record jackets designed by Josef Albers along with a few comparable covers by others, as well as relevant ephemera and documentation from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation for context. Albers’ albums have been exhibited before, even in London, apparently; they were in a Josef and Anni Albers show at the Cooper-Hewitt in 2004-05 and a show of record jackets by many artists at the Barbara Krakow Gallery, in Boston in 2005. All are already catalogued and illustrated as offset prints by Brenda Danilowitz in The Prints of Josef Albers: A Catalogue Raisonné 1915-1976 (2002). So it’s not that they are undiscovered, though, yes, it is still possible to fish around for them; it’s that here, on sympathetic display, they get a chance to stand for once and before all else as firsthand projects in applied abstract art.
In other words, the interest here is in the artist’s direct investment in these designs (almost entirely black-on-white), quite apart from the otherwise interesting question of whether abstract paintings are appropriate for the jackets of certain kinds of music, such as, significantly enough, a Franz Kline on the cover of Dave Brubeck’s Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962). In response, I want to concentrate on the primary material and make some possibly enticing connections. Face to face, and over all, Albers’ covers show some overall stiffness of conception, as if Albers felt a twinge of hesitation in doing such a thing just to pay the rent; yet there is also a sturdy insistence on doing art and nothing but. So even where they may not seem like prize-winning graphic designs, the things become more interesting when thought of as large-edition original prints bringing abstract art directly into suburban American living rooms of the 1950s.
Almost all were done for Enoch Light (1907-1978), a classical as well as “easy (all too easy!) listening” musician and techie hi-fi fanatic. Light was the mover behind both Command Records and his own performance group, the Light Brigade, which specialized in music often built around an instrument I as a youth hated even more than muted trumpet: the vibraphone, with its nagging call to bop cheerfully along. There’s something lily-white about it too. Anyway, middleclass culture has limits that Albers managed to live with without evident compromise on the art’s part. After all, Rembrandt too paid the rent by purveying graphics to the middle class. So instead of describing the covers in the kind of detail that we would probably not even want to devote to seven Albers “Homage to the Square” paintings, I’ll comment on some cultural connections that they make for me —connections of a kind usually provoked only by fine art. (I have been told that the jacket designs make no attempt to caricature the music.)
Persuasive Percussion (1959; in this case not the Light Brigade but Terry Snyder and the All Stars) shows a tightly packed grid or lattice of small black disks from which a few wander up and out like stray molecules of some light gas; or better still, like the diagrams from a classic essay in which Cyril Stanley Smith would show how natural lattice structures are surprisingly tolerant of irregularities (“Structural Hierarchy in Science, Art, and History,” 1974-75, 1978). Persuasive Percussion Volume 2 (1959) features a Judd-like stack of short green horizontal stripes down the center, asymmetrically punctuated by black disks. Then Provocative Percussion (1960) is Lissitzky-like with its larger black rotated squares and single smaller ones. Provocative Percussion II (1960) has smaller and larger disks, bobbing about singularly and paired in the field, very much like the red disks in the paintings of Paul McMahon (as in The Pictures Generation at the Met last spring and summer). Another cover with an evenly spaced lattice of dots, Provocative Percussion III (1961), has exceptions of different sorts, with some dots lighter, some darker, and others missing, resembling the “off” spots of an LED sign, which help it appear pleasantly loose and improvisatory.
In the fine Bauhaus 1919-1933 show at the Modern (to January 25th) can be found a related category of Albers’ applied-art production: foot-square panels of what is best termed (though not by the Modern) “cased” glass, consisting of fused layers of different colors selectively showing through, as in cameos. Here at Minus Space, the notion of a form as a caesura or gap in a repeating structure, such as Albers’ pasta-like ribbons of glass, appears specifically in one example: the Command Classics cover of the Mussorgsky and Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition (André Vandernoot and l’Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, 1961), where a dense, evenly-spaced row of vertical lines, irregular in length, is interrupted by blank rectangles reminiscent of Hilla Rebay’s originally low-slung hanging of the Kandinskys at the by then former Museum of Non-Objective Art. That’s one of Light’s classics, or “semi-classics,” along with Magnificent Two-Piano Performances: Mozart—Mendelssohn—Schubert (Leonid Hambro and Jasha Zayde), also of 1961, whose cover shows a rather Malevichian interpenetration of two blue squares as appropriate to the set-up of a brace of grand pianos.
This short-lived project was not like Rodchenko doing candy wrappers with Mayakovsky writing the label copy, because the albums weren’t supposedly of “low” music, though from the avant-garde point of view the middlebrow is often more aesthetically objectionable than whatever is authentically low. Well, even as to musicality: one has definitely heard worse. Here Albers was doing a job, and took it seriously. At least he wasn’t doing a number. (At Minus Space it can seem for a little while like all non-ironic, non-ridiculous, non-sarcastic, non-infantile, possibly political but not pseudo-political art might actually have something in common!)
JOSEPH MASHECK is an art historian-critic whose most recent book is Texts on (Texts on) Art (Brooklyn Rail Press).