JOSEF ALBERS in America: Painting on Paper


Josef Albers in America, yes, but also America in Josef Albers. Work the ratio: how much America was in the German when he arrived here in 1933? How much America did he take with him when he traveled to Mexico and discovered in its geometry and native hues an aesthetic program whose combinatory possibilities were limited only by one’s willingness to experiment? The answers hinge on what is meant by “America.” If we allow ourselves to accept the defining feature proposed by Leo Steinberg in what would have been contemporaneous literature, Other Critera (published in 1972), then we are talking about America the industrious. We are talking about an unabated work ethic that found expression in Albers’s relentless enthusiasm for experimentation. There were no terminal points in Albers’s practice, only transitions.

Josef Albers, “Color Study for White Line Square,” not dated. Oil on blotting paper (with gouache, pencil, and varnish). 29.53 × 29.66 cm. © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York.

Is it odd for the American character of art in the 20th century to have been so well-defined by a Russian-born art critic and so well-exemplified by a native German? Given that it was a Frenchman (de Tocqueville) who’d so succinctly described us Americans a century earlier, I think not. In any case it’s hard to argue with Steinberg when he suggests that what counts for the American artist is not beauty, but work. American artists don’t make art; they make work. They are workers, like Albers, whose labor-intensive ethos gears them towards serialization, iteration, and variations on a theme.

Not painting, but problem solving with pigment. Albers investigates, makes notations, keeps assiduous records, and plots his progress with the exactitude of a spreadsheet. In front of one of Albers’s studies I can understand that a sketch is a masterpiece when the fact of the work is evident on the page. I recognize that the American in me would prefer a rehearsal to a performance because it is closer to the moment of work.

A good day is a productive day, a day of productivity, a day of work. Industry and ingenuity are the twin poles between which the vicissitudes of American art in the 20th century found orientation. Perhaps they still are. For how many American artists would prefer a laboratory or a workshop to a studio, like Albers? How many, in a fit of intoxication, would proclaim not that they were drunk but merely experimenting with the limits of consciousness?

The wall text misleads: it reads, “oil on paper,” which suggests I am standing before an object. But the work is not an object; it’s a situation, an interaction of color at an intersection as precisely gridded as Midtown Manhattan. At the intersection I see Albers. He’s in a field of yellow, freshly squeezed from a new tube, firing Zeno’s arrow towards orange, tracking the number of shades his projectile traverses.

If the laws of color are to painters what the rules of grammar are to writers, then the authority of Albers will be something worth studying for generations to come. There will be mutations, differentiations, reversals, and repetition—it’s part of the process, part of the beauty of work. 

225 Madison Ave. // NY, NY


Charles Schultz