If nothing else, you’ve got to admire Josef Albers’s obsessive dedication to one thing and one thing alone: colour. Across his long career, the hugely influential German modernist experimented endlessly with colour theory, toying with what worked and what didn’t, what melded and what clashed. A lifetime of tinkering led to a whole body of stunning colour studies, and the handful of works on display here are gorgeous.
This is Albers’ ‘Variants/Adobe’ series, a bunch of abstract geometric experiments inspired by his trips to Mexico and the desert plains of the American Southwest. They find him messing with viewers’ perception of colour, over and over. No colour is meant to overlap here, instead, each contrasting shade is created by juxtaposition. Your brain perceives them one way in one context, another way in a different one. The ochre looks darker next to blood red than it does next to bile brown; yellow looks brighter next to green than next to beige, etc etc. Each little canvas here is a world of illusions, where your eyes are forced to compete with your brain to figure it all out.
Each work is made of the same geometric elements: wide rectangles in the background, two pillars in front, all in slightly different dimensions. It could be a face with eyes, a cat’s ears, a building with two chimneys. You perceive all of it differently, individually. That’s Albers’s point: what you’re seeing isn’t a universal truth, it’s a personal one. The colours are yours to interpret, they’re as bright or as dim as you see them, and that’s valid.
I’ve always found the roughness of Albers’s work a bit off-putting, though. You spot flubs and smudges and wobbly lines. It ruins the illusion, breaks the magic of the colour. So just stand a few feet away and you’ll remain spellbound.