November 23, 2016 – April 2, 2017
A forgotten 19th-century poet, the sad-sack hack writer, James Thomson, struggled against the grave until the age of forty-seven, eking out a living in a presumably squalid East London garret, writing copy for whatever miserable periodical would underwrite his diet of warm gin, fish and finger pies, and no dessert. One of these humble monthlies was Cope’s Tobacco Plant, a trade-organ of the cigar industry, for which Thomson had free reign to muse upon whatever he pleased, as long as it mentioned smoking.
Josef Albers, no hack, is almost forgotten as an artist, and if remembered at all, it is as one of the most influential art professors of the 20th century. A theory wonk obsessed with color perception, the handmade, and above all, the square, he gave his students license to fly in pretty much any direction they chose—as long as they didn’t forget the square.
Straight out of the Bauhaus, then onto Black Mountain College (how’s that for bona-fides?), he landed at Yale, where from 1950 onward he helmed the program, laying out a curriculum that fostered the less-is-more aesthetic of minimalism, and begat a generation of artists mindful of grids, the psychology of seeing, and yes, the square.
Brice Marden, Richard Serra, Robert and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Eva Hesse, Chuck Close: Yalies all, and all under the sway, to varying degrees, of Albers’s forceful Teutonic regime.
One of Albers’s foundational tenets was Keep it simple, a notion that is all over MoMA’s small cabinet exhibition of his almost century-old photocollages made in the ’20s and early ’30s. Of the sixteen examples here, only a handful qualify as collages in the way we have come to know the genre. All of the works here feature grainy black and white photographs, snapshots mostly, grouped together on yellowing pieces of paper board.
Some of the groupings seem willfully unartful, in a few examples they are merely several photos placed near each other on a board. One is a single photograph placed off-center on the board. Collage in the fine art context has come to mean “an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.” Do these create a new whole? Well, yes, but is it art of enduring value, or is its primary interest its constituent parts—i.e. seldom seen and famous faces captured for a time-capsule?
“Albers’s photocollages stand as a remarkable contribution to the medium in their own right,” gushes curator and catalogue author Sarah Hermanson Meister. I gather she wasn’t referring here to the photobooth-like vacation images of Walter Gropius and Schifra Canavesi, shown cavorting on an Italian beach. In one frame, they smile, in another they laugh, in yet another they laugh harder. It’s mildly delightful to share in their funny moments; but is it art?
In a telephone conversation, Meister made a case for the importance of the works. She spoke of Albers’s “suite of solutions to a problem of his own invention,” and that she hopes that viewers of the show will “confront the nuances.” And she admitted that the question of just what to call these works was, in the planning stages, “a matter of some debate.”
Is there something separating this work from the photocollages we might remember seeing on suburban mantelpieces (back when photos were developed and printed instead of living inside telephones) that showed, say, the family vacation at the shore? Yes, because the photos gathered here depict iconic Bauhaus personalities, like Paul Klee, Herbert Bayer, and Oskar Schlemmer (himself a recognized master of exceedingly artful collages).
It was an interesting group, these Bauhausers, and these rare pictures of them before they decamped Hitler’s Germany for teaching jobs at MIT, Harvard, Yale, the New School, and the University of Chicago are a treat.
One of the four or five groupings here that unquestionably operate as collage in the accepted sense of the term is Untitled (Bullfight, San Sebastian) (1929 – 32). It shows different perspectives on the stadium and audience in an interesting cut-up manner. Meister and her co-organizer, curatorial fellow Kristin Gaylord have written a wall-text that suggests that the grouping’s “choreographed disjunction evokes the rhythm of the event.” To these eyes it does not, but then again, I’ve never been to a bullfight.
This mini-exhibition sprang from a gift of ten photocollages to the museum, so, fair enough; would that it had been supplemented by some of Albers’s more collage-y collages (some of which are reproduced in the handsome accompanying catalogue). But if an unstated goal was to reexamine the question of “What Is Collage?,” then this show is an unqualified success.
Like the relation of, say, Picasso’s ceramics to his Demoiselles d’Avignon painting, the photocollages of Josef Albers exist within his oeuvre as barely footnotes to his Homage to the Square paintings. Could this show change that?