Is God in the details?
Josef Albers, the German- American abstractionist artist, is being recast as a religious painter and the meaning that lies between his famous squares takes centre stage in a terrific exhibition
THE GLUCKSMAN Gallery’s The Sacred Modernist: Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist is by far the biggest and best exhibition of the German-American artist’s work ever seen in Ireland. More than that, though, the title spells out an ambition to reposition Albers, surely the archetypal austere abstractionist, as a religious painter. Drawn almost entirely from the extensive holdings of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut, and curated by the foundation’s director, Nicholas Fox Weber, an acknowledged authority on Albers, the show includes Albers’s earliest known work, an ink drawing from 1911, and his last one, his final Homage to the Square completed just prior to his death in 1976.
Albers is now best known for the thousand-plus paintings and lithographs that form his monumental project, Homage to the Square. Consisting exclusively of concentric squares of flat colour, the series was begun around 1949. It stands as a major artistic achievement and it significantly influenced the development of abstraction in the US. The works sound, and can at first glance appear, drily analytical, but Albers’s speciality was investigating how adjoining colours never sit still. Rather they interact unpredictably and dynamically with each other, producing complex optical effects from the simplest means.
So there’s something going on in those squares, but is it something of a religious as well as an optical nature? Fox Weber suggests that Albers may have regarded the interaction of colours as spiritually charged. More specifically, he alludes to the configuration of the New Jerusalem sketched out in the Book of Revelation. The plan of the city is based on squares within squares, in proportional schemes that influenced the design of many of the great European cathedrals, another interest of Albers, as his drawings, postcards and books attest.
Born in Bottrop, Westphalia, in 1888, into a Catholic family, Albers was a practising Catholic throughout his life. “His father,” Fox Weber relates, “was a house-painter, and an electrician, and a plumber. Josef became a schoolteacher.” He’d become very interested in art from at least 1908 when he saw the work of Cézanne and Matisse, and he renewed his studies to become an art teacher. His first artistic commission was to design a stained-glass window for the church in Bottrop.
The window, Rosa Mystica Ora Pr[o] Nobis (Mystical rose pray for us), was destroyed during the second World War. A study was known to exist. The foundation acquired it and commissioned a facsimile based on the study and on other surviving documentary sources. It’s in the exhibition and, as a result of its recreation, the church in Bottrop intends to commission and reinstall a version. In the window, the concentrated, central image of a radiant rose is interesting in the context of Albers’ subsequent work.
In 1920 he enrolled at the Bauhaus, the most famous, innovative and influential modern art and design school in 20th century Europe. At which point, he said: “I threw my old things out the window, started once more from the bottom. That was the best step I made in my life.” Within a few years he was teaching there. Fox Weber refers to a grid-based, apparently abstract stained-glass panel, Park, that Albers produced in 1924. The art historian Fred Licht pointed out in 1994 that there is a notable detail in the work, a distinctly bright pink area against which a cross is silhouetted.
Berlin-born Anneliese (Anni) Fleischmann turned up at the Bauhaus as a student in 1922. Despite the school’s progressive reputation, women were denied access to certain courses. Anni opted for weaving for pragmatic reasons, but actually found she loved it. She became the most significant textile artist of the 20th century. She and Albers married in 1925.
Her family had converted en masse to Lutheranism in the 19th century. Essentially agnostic, she was nonetheless, as she put it: “In the Hitler sense, Jewish.” So quitting Nazi Germany was desirable, particularly since the Bauhaus itself was regarded as decadent and was effectively closed down in 1933. Albers took a job at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where they remained until 1950, when he took up a post at Yale Art School. Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly were among his students at Black Mountain. Although he maintained his distance from the art world per se, Albers’ reputation grew steadily over the years. By the time of his death he was firmly established as a major figure in 20th century art and design.
Fox Weber discerns other potential strands of religious influences in his abstract paintings. One is his use of a cruciform shape in his compositions, most explicitly in a 1938 work, Slanting Cross (on green), in which the central form is clearly legible as a crucifix. Though, with regard to intended religious meanings, Fox Weber notes that Albers’ thinking is “unknowable”. More speculatively, he suggests that paintings employing two distinct colour forms, including Related I (red), may be derived from early Renaissance paintings of the annunciation.
Links between abstraction and mysticism have a long, honourable pedigree, extending back to Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1910. Albers had a poor opinion of many of his contemporaries, but he respected and corresponded with Kandinsky. Then there are Mondrian’s links with theosophy. In his groundbreaking 1975 study, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, art historian Robert Rosenblum sees a direct link between German Romantic artists such as Casper David Friedrich and the abstraction of, notably, Mark Rothko. The yearning for the transcendental, the absolute found in Romantic painting translates directly into an abstract vernacular, in Albers’s case as much as in Rothko’s.
Albers was famously forthright in expressing his views, and he was an independent thinker. He had no apparent reason to conceal or disguise a religious agenda in his work, and the evidence suggests that he didn’t particularly have such an agenda. He was a practising Catholic, and his faith certainly informed his work, especially in terms of its focus on the transcendental. Yet the show’s title and subtitle seems to overstate the facts, even to misrepresent Albers as being on a religious mission. The catalogue texts, by Fox Weber and others, don’t make any comparable assertions, and are generally very measured and cautious about the role of Albers’s religious identity in his work, and it is a pity that the overall title doesn’t reflect this. Still, The Sacred Modernist is a terrific exhibition.
The Sacred Modernist: Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist is presented in co-operation with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Lewis Glucksman Gallery, UCC. Until July 8