Stark Designs By Josef Albers Propel Liberation Of Color

The Bauhaus-trained teacher-painter spent a lifetime studying the mutability of shapes

AT the Bauhaus in his native Germany, where Josef Albers (1888-1976) was a master teacher, he set his students to drawing letters backward and in parallel perspective with a pencil held between their toes. Why? To teach the essential lesson that "control is freedom."

The exhibition, "Josef Albers: Glass, Color, and Light," which is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through Sept. 17, demonstrates how Albers applied this principle to his own work. In glass, painting, and photography, Albers strictly controlled the composition of his images - often reducing them to stark geometric abstractions. In the process, he liberated colors and forms from representing reality so they appear to viewers as fluctuating visual stimuli.

Albers is known as an educator (at the Bauhaus and, after 1933, in the United States at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.) and a painter. His "Homage to the Square" canvases, which he produced the last 26 years of his life, embody the modernist tenet, "Less is more." Several examples of the "Homage" series in this show illustrate his pared-down, geometric vocabulary of superimposed squares. Albers employed this minimalist format, in varying combinations of colors, to investigate his passionate concern with the mutability of color.

He called the "Homages" his "platters to serve color." The nested squares seem to recede or advance, depending on their proximity to colors of different hues, saturation, or light-dark value, to create an effect of volume on a flat surface.

An orange central square, for example, seems to project when superimposed on a darker red square. A red square at the center of another "Homage" looks like a hole punched into a lighter orange square. "Making colors do something they don't do themselves" is how Albers described his technique in his manifesto, "Interaction of Color" (1963).

Albers's early work in glass, dating back to the 1920s when he attended the Bauhaus as a student, makes clear the genesis of his fascination with interacting color and form. His earliest glass pieces are mounted in the walls of a darkened gallery, backlit like stained-glass windows glowing in the chiaroscuro of a cathedral. This stunning display is altogether fitting. The Bauhaus program was based on the total integration of art, architecture, handicraft, and industrial design. The school's ultimate aspiration was the unified effect of a Gothic cathedral.

Albers's first efforts in glass were assemblages of fragments in different shapes, colors, and sizes scavenged from the town dump. In "Gitterbild (Grid Mounted)" of 1921, he placed multicolored glass squares in a leaded grid beneath a lattice of copper wires.

He soon abandoned this hand-crafted mosaic technique for industrial single panes of flashed glass, made by sandblasting and kiln-firing a stenciled pattern on layers of opaque glass. These austere geometric compositions had the advantage for him of obliterating any evidence of individual touch or emotion. All that remains to the eye are the "universal" elements of shape and color.

His flashed-glass "paintings" use bare bars of two or three colors to create a new effect: rigid rectangles that seem to undulate rhythmically. An oscillating tension between foreground and background animates the abstract compositions. In "Upward" (ca. 1926), blue functions alternately as both background at the top of the image and figure at the bottom, for a complex interpenetration of effect.

The revelation of this exhibition is a collection of photographs by Albers discovered after his death. Their subject and style are modernist: natural and industrial scenes, often viewed from unexpected angles and rendered as abstract patterns.

Although the portraits are mundane - scarcely more than vacation-album snapshots - his photographs of objects show the artist's eye at work. We see ordinary things as never seen before. The Eiffel Tower is transformed from a tourist spire into crisscrossing, forceful lines. "Untitled" (no date) transmutes a bullfight into a photomontage of rectangles (the roofs of cars in a parking lot) and circles (the hats of spectators seen from above). Slatted backs of chairs in "On the Kurfurstendamm" (1929) seem to interweave like willow strips in a basket.

Albers's obsession with perception is a constant here, too. "Sidewalk Shadows, Berlin Sidewalk" (no date) analyzes, like the viewer in Plato's cave, the shadows cast by an object rather than the object itself. At the top of the photograph are two subjects' feet, yet most of the image contains the incorporeal shadows of two strollers.

"I see; therefore, I am" might be Albers's credo in the three mediums on display. What he sees, whether in painting, photography, or glass, is an underlying order and clarity that are infinitely variable. It is easy to understand why Albers has been called the father of Op Art, which explores the effects of optical illusions. The sense of flux in his work has little to do with physical reality and everything to do with manipulating perception.

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