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Josef Albers' first and last versions of Homage to the Square on view in Germany
Homage to the Square “A”, 1950, oil on Masonite, 77.5 x 77.5 cm. The Cartin Collection ©The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014.

BOTTROP.- Homage to the Square is the most comprehensive and at the same time influential series of paintings to be created in the twentieth century. It would be difficult to overestimate its impact in European and North American art. Josef Albers worked on the series from 1950 until the year he died, in 1976, and produced more than two thousand paintings. Despite their small size and simple structure, their effect is at once monumental and subtle.

For the first time since their creation, the first and the last work in the series are now being shown side by side at the Josef Albers Museum in a presentation that opens up a new perspective on Homage to the Square as an artistic project. The works will be presented within the museum’s permanent exhibition, which boasts the world’s largest collection of works by Albers, demonstrating the scope of his art. This collection has also provided the framework for a series of exhibitions which over the past years illustrated the impact of Albers’s art on the American Minimalists. Starting in 2004, the list of artists presented in this context so far includes Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Michael Venezia, and Ad Reinhardt. In Fall 2014 the focus will be on Fred Sandback.

Contrary to what the title suggests, Homage to the Square does not pay tribute to a geometric form, but instead offers a celebration of color and its immense range of expressiveness. Albers chose the basic square format because of its compact frontality, the way it meets viewers face to face, like an icon, but without loudly claiming our attention. This enables us to concentrate on the countless variations in the interplay of colors, for that is what the series is about: the complex balance between the identity of each color on its own and the (often transformational) relationships they form with each other. “Color is the most relative medium of all in art,” Albers once said, and accordingly it is the viewers who, in the act of seeing, cause the nested squares of color to vibrate. The painting no longer seems fixed, it emerges as a dynamic organism whose impact is not limited to the visual but leaves a lasting mental impression.

The effect of color is not, as the nineteenth century would have it, for example Goethe or Chevreul, limited to pleasing chromatic harmonies. Albers’s Homage to the Square demonstrates that through art, matte or dark colors and dissonant combinations can achieve beauty. “I can make the drabbest gray dance by juxtaposing it with black,” Albers said, also referring to the first Homage painting, which is being presented here. The artist’s hands transform color into a universal language of unlimited expressiveness. In this sense, each painting in Homage to the Square must be seen as a variation rather than a valid, final solution. Each individual painting is only a part in an open-ended artistic research. Late in his life Albers said: “I’m like a fisherman who brings in his net once every hour to see what he has caught. I will need centuries, millions and millions of squares.”

Color is the primary concern in these paintings, more important even than the act of painting as such. Albers applied the paint with craftsmanlike care, eschewing spontaneity and personal expression. According to him, the artist’s personality should remain in the background. It is therefore no surprise that the antithesis to his art in the American art scene of his time were trends such as Abstract Expressionism, whose emotional exuberance broke through any clear formal concept. And yet Albers’s paintings are never impersonal. On close inspection, the oil colors, carefully applied with a palette knife, almost seem to breathe; a lighter colored foundation shimmers through and transforms the paintings into visions of light. These works are owed to an idea of beauty that is situated somewhere between craftsmanship and artistry—they are expressive in spite of themselves.

The final Homage painting also being presented here may be seen as Albers’s legacy, a summary of all the questions the artist posed to art during his decades-long career. Most particularly it epitomizes the existential dimension of his art. Albers explained that he chose the colors in the painting as a reminder of earthly reality and its place in the universe. His aim was for all three colors to have the same luminosity, thus making clear that there are no limits between the different spheres, since the universe is immaterial and unlimited. The interaction between the colors in the nested squares is deeply significant as the innermost square relates closely with the outermost color, yet without extinguishing the color of the square between them. There is a profound harmony in the immeasurable spectrum of color.

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