To Open Eyes
Yuko Shiraishi – 2006
One eye that sees,
Another that feels.
Paul Klee from Animals more grand mourn at the table¹
When Joseph Albers arrived in North Carolina in 1933 from Nazi Germany and started teaching at Black Mountain College, language was a problem – he could not speak a single word of English. But Albers felt that the essence of his teaching lay less in words than in the visual. The phrase he always used was, ‘to open eyes’.
I started looking at Albers’ work when I was a student at art school in London, where I discovered artists such as Malevich, Lissitzky, Schwitters and members of the de Stijl movement. At that time he was not my hero or my favourite artist, but somehow his work was like a landscape or light in the sky that one sees and memorises and keeps in the back of one’s mind. He lived behind my eyes all the time. Nowadays I have much more affinity for Albers’ work. My real interest in him was sparked when I visited the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut in 1998. The director Nicholas Fox Weber had asked me to design the stationery for the foundation.² Although I knew Josef’s work, I was not familiar with Anni’s, which really intrigued me when I visited the foundation. I also met Anni’s brother, who was having a birthday party at the time of my visit. Nick very kindly showed me all the foundation’s archives. Albers was known as a great teacher, and those who work in the foundation follow his example. They are very generous in sharing knowledge and are deeply committed to education.
This opportunity to show my work alongside Albers’ at the Leonard Hutton Galleries has increased my admiration for him and has stimulated me enormously. The more I have looked at his work, the more I have realised that his world of apparent simplicity contains much complexity and diversity. Persecuted by the Nazis, he left his native Germany for the USA, where he began a new life in a new language. Having been a teacher at the Bauhaus, he started working at Black Mountain College. His work was much criticised by leading American art critics of the time.³ Albers responded by saying that artists have to be brave in the face of criticism and stand firmly by their work. Albers explored and journeyed through this own world. He was a unique figure who excelled both as an artist and a teacher. He also opened people’s eyes to the enormous possibilities of art in fields such as architecture, interior design, typography and textiles.
My Words of Colour is an installation especially made for this exhibition. It is inspired by Albers’ ‘Homage to the Square 1963’ and incorporates a bench. Many of my installations include somewhere to sit. This is because I am interested in the physical acts of sitting and standing. I want to create environments that can be experienced in different ways according to whether one is sitting or standing. It also interests me that Albers visited Mexico and became fascinated by Mayan and Teotihuacan art and architecture. The collection of ancient Mexican art he formed with Anni is well known. Sonia Lombardo de Ruiz has described how the plastic arts of the Teotihuacan take two forms, the naturalistic and the geometric.⁴ I too am interested in how naturalism and geometry coexisted as expressions of the culture that produced them. Another aspect of Mexico that fascinates me is its unique philosophy of death.
Albers emphasised the value of ‘maximum effect from minimum means’.⁵ This has been a guiding principle for many artists including, importantly, Donald Judd. Judd’s sculptures and the colours he uses are made by industrial processes. It is intriguing that Albers collected and used paints made by many different American and European manufacturers such as Windsor Newton, Rembrandt, Blockex, Shiva and Old Holland. In the different versions of his ‘Homage to the Square’, Albers used paint straight from the tube and wrote the names of the manufacturers on the back of each painting. This shows an unusual reverence for the tools of his trade.
In my own case I use Cadmium Yellow from Windsor Newton, Rowney, Michael Harding, Spectrum and a Japanese manufacturer. Each one is a slightly different colour. It fascinates me how perceptions of colour differ from country to country. It is like Coca–Cola, which tastes different – perhaps because of the water used – in the USA, Japan, the UK, Turkey, Spain and Hungary. And chocolate Smarties, whose colours differ all over the world. German Smarties are richly coloured like German Expressionist paintings. In England the colours are soft and pale. Japanese Smarties come somewhere in between. Smarties are almost like languages, like different vocabularies of colours. Collecting all the variations is a form of scientific research. Being a believer in the power of colour and the ‘discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect’ ⁶, Albers was clearly aware of all this.
I believe everyone has their own intuitions about colour as they do about language. If the desire to communicate is instinctive, vocabularies and dialects are learned in the same way as we learn to use colours – which can be compared with human DNA – to create paintings, drawings and constructions. Every colour has its own character. Arizon Crimson is rich, dark and transparent. Cadmium Red is light, vigorous and opaque. Each colour is a like a musical instrument. Conducting them is to make poetry. As Albers said:
They are juxtaposed for various and changing visual effects. They are to challenge or to echo each other, to support or to oppose one another. The contacts, respectively boundaries, between them may also vary from soft to hard touches, may mean pull and push besides clashes, but also embracing, intersecting, penetrating.⁷
Donald Judd has written about the character of Albers’ colours as follows:
As I said color has a long way to go and is very difficult. I admire the large areas of color in Rothko’s and Newman’s paintings, which itself is a very important innovation and which probably comes from Matisse, and perhaps also Leger, and from Matisse by way of Milton Avery, but the most particular innovations in color are those of Pollock and Albers, Pollock because of the diversity, materiality, particularity and immediacy of the color, color as material, and Albers, whose color has all of these characteristics but in a more general way, because of the actual change in a color throughout an area. It hasn’t been done before or since.⁸
Max Bill also noted:
Max Bense describes this in ‘aesthetica II+III’ as a physical process, or at least comparable to one, and through this approaches – from the opposite side – the point I describe as the ‘autonomous effect of a picture’, its ‘source of energy’. This means the place that sends out energies in rhythms that are determined by the picture’s composition. These energies are created by the colour waves themselves and by the interaction of the colour waves with a whole – which can also be described as a physical–physiological process. The works by Josef Albers are especially nice examples for this sort of observation as they are reduced to the most elementary formal elements and also because their colours are of special experimental joy.⁹
I suggested earlier that Albers’ work was like a landscape or the light you see in the sky. There is also the small scale of his paintings. Despite this, or rather because of it, they have a hugely powerful impact on us. They are like eyes or windows through we see the outside world. ‘The painting looks at us, says Albers. Art is looking at us. Like a window, light pours in. Like a Magritte painting of a window, where the multitude of visual connotations are telescoped into a single plane, the viewer no longer knows exactly what he is seeing nor what he is supposed to see.’ ¹⁰
I wish I had met Albers or had been in his class and known him as a teacher. His work has sustained me all these years like the light of a landscape. I know there is more I can discover about my work and his. Albers has taught me, as Klee’s verse puts it, that the tears in my eye may be caused by dust but they could also be caused by emotion.
1. Harriett Watts (introduction and translation), Three Painter Poets: Arp, Schwitters, Klee, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1974, p.121
2. In writing his essay I have been indebted to Nicholas Fox Weber, ‘The Artist as Alchemist’, pp.14–49 in Joseph Albers: A Retrospective, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1988
3. This is explored in detail in Donald Judd, ‘Josef Albers’, pp.7–25 in Josef Albers, Cologne, Distel–Verlag, 1991
4. Sonia Lombardo de Ruiz, ‘Conception and Abstraction: The Art of Teotihuacan’, pp.47–49 in The Art of Ancient Mexico, London, Hayward Gallery, 1992
5. Weber 1988, p.19
6. Weber 1988, p.34
7. Michael Auping, Abstraction–Geometry–Painting: Selected Geometric Abstract Painting in America Since 1945, Buffalo, Albright–Knox Art Gallery in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1989, p.110
8. Judd 1991, pp.24–25
9. Max Bill, ‘Josef Albers’, Separatabdruck aus dem ‘Werk’, no. 4, April 1958, pp.135–138 (translation by Nina Fellmann)
10. Auping 1989, p.32, citing Margit Rowell, ‘On Albers’ Colour’, Artforum, January 1972, pp.26–37