Josef Albers in Mexicoby Benjamin Clifford
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
NOVEMBER 3, 2017 – MARCH 28, 2018
The Guggenheim’s concisely titled Josef Albers in Mexico explores Albers’s experience of the eponymous Latin American nation, focusing on his frequent visits to pre-Columbian monuments and archeological sites. Between 1935 and his death in 1976, Josef Albers and his wife Anni, like her husband a veteran of both the Bauhaus and North Carolina’s experimental Black Mountain College, travelled to Mexico many times. The pair returned again and again to six key locations: Teotihuacán and Tenayuca near Mexico City, Monte Albán and Mitla in Oaxaca, and Uxmal and Chichén Itzá at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the Guggenheim’s exhibition is divided into sections that showcase each location through Albers’ photographs of the sites and various related paintings and prints.
The exhibition argues that Albers’s geometric abstractions reproduce motifs and formal structures originating in indigenous Mexican art and architecture, and it finds its most explicit evidence in several works whose titles refer directly to one or another site. For example, the interlocking rectangular forms of To Mitla (1940) are described as adapting a repetitious stepped motif known as “xicalcoliuhqui” that Albers highlights in his photographs of the Mitla site. Tenayuca I (1943) and three related studies from the late 1930s are likewise characterized as schematic representations of both Tenayuca’s two-tiered pyramid complex and the many serpent sculptures for which the site is known.
However, most of the paintings and prints on display here do not make such clear reference to pre-Columbian art and architecture. This includes several works drawn from Albers’s signature Homage to the Square series (1950–76). These austere geometric abstractions pare painting down to a simple formal structure—three or four squares, one inside the next—that allows Albers to freely explore relationships of color. Despite their iconic status, here the Homages are largely kept on the sidelines: all but one are sequestered in a corner of the exhibition space, displayed along a semicircular balcony that doesn’t communicate well with the rest of the gallery.
The likely rationale for this decision is clear. Although texts provided by the Guggenheim connect the palette of the Homages to the Mexican landscape, paintings so formally reductive ultimately contribute little to the exhibition’s emphasis on pre-Columbian aesthetic sensibility. This is especially obvious when the Homages are compared with works that make direct appeal to their sources or otherwise invite architectural associations. Take, for example, Albers’s Variant/Adobe series (1946-66), which also makes exclusive use of simple quadrilateral forms. The compositions, however, are more elaborate, allowing a greater generosity of reference and analogy. Albers has referred to these works as “walls” or “windows,” while the name of the series invokes the vernacular architecture of Mexico and the American Southwest. And, in further contrast to the Homages, the section of the gallery reserved for this series is integrated with the rest of the exhibition space.
Other works throughout the exhibition use layered forms and oblique linear projections to suggest spaces governed by an architectural logic of construction as much as by abstract formal principles. The composition of Biconjugate (1943), for example, suggests the superimposed transparent planes typical of buildings in the International Style. Although obviously distant from an indigenous Mesoamerican context, Biconjugate and similar works nonetheless highlight Albers’s sustained attention to the built environment, an inheritance of Bauhaus ideology. They also help clarify the importance of his photographs of pre-Columbian monuments, many of which are composed according to the same refined, geometric principles as his paintings. When these bodies of work are displayed side by side, it’s easy to imagine Albers processing his experience of architectural space through photography before translating the resulting formal solutions onto canvas.
Albers’s interest in pre-Columbian art and architecture is, of course, a single episode in the long story of modernist fascination with non-European cultures. Albers, like “primitivists” such as Pablo Picasso or the artists of Die Brücke, had little knowledge of the conditions and intentions that shaped what he treated as decontextualized formal resources. What distinguishes Albers from earlier European enthusiasts for the indigenous is a bit of synchronicity that, although it falls beyond the purview of the Guggenheim’s exhibition, should nonetheless be noted. While Albers was travelling in Mexico, an emerging generation of Latin American artists—including figures as diverse as Tomás Maldonado, Lygia Clark, and Carlos Cruz-Diez—used his work as a prototype for languages of abstraction that to them represented the promise of modernity. These artists, often working from reproductions and without reference to the stated intentions of their European forebears, were thus equally able to project their own aesthetic desires and political aspirations onto relics of an older world.
Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.