In a new and unusual approach to color in the work of abstract painter Josef Albers, David Zwirner's first London exhibition devoted to Albers focuses on one color that held a pervasive place in the artist's oeuvre. Sunny Side Up, a trove of paintings in which yellow dominates, is drawn from five decades of the artist's work and conveys the limitless expressive potential of color and light that characterizes Albers's practice as a whole.
If there was any single inspirer of Josef Albers's embrace of color it was the German Romantic poet, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. As a young artist, Albers owned an early edition of Goethe's Theory of Color (1810), in which the poet wrote "… a strong yellow on lustrous silk … has a magnificent and noble effect. We also experience a very warm and cozy impression with yellow. Thus, in painting, too, it belongs among the luminous and active colors. … The eye is gladdened, the heart expands, the feelings are cheered, an immediate warmth seems to waft toward us."¹
Bringing a touch of that warmth to London's midwinter climate, Sunny Side Up will present an extensive selection of the artist's iconic Homage to the Square paintings, begun in 1950 and elaborated on until his death in 1976. Exploring a variety of chromatic and perceptual effects, the Homage to the Square paintings serve as a sustained, serial investigation into rhythm, mood, and spatial movement within a carefully configured nested square format. By employing a variety of yellow tones in different combinations, Albers was able to play with perception and produce illusions of translucency. Naples yellow, goldenrod, mustard, maize, saffron and more encircle and abut one another in these works, seeming at times to combine or overlap, defying the logic of their rational and systematic application directly from the tube in single, unmixed layers. Challenging the geometrical regularity of the compositions, the distinct color fields often appear to the eye to expand, dissolving the boundaries between them. Yellow also serves as a perfect conduit for Albers's brilliant white grounds, visible at the edge of each work, which shine through and lend a distinct luminosity to these paintings.
Also on view will be paintings from Albers's earlier Variant/Adobe series, which he initiated in 1947 in La Luz, New Mexico during a sabbatical from teaching at Black Mountain College. The abstract, architectonic forms that make up these works demonstrate the profound influence of Latin American art and culture on Albers's practice. The composition, which resembles a schematic rendering of a vernacular southern Mexican adobe dwelling, also provided Albers a means to trim the linear and graphic elements of his work in order to focus on color. Writing on the series a year after its inauguration, Albers described the range of effects he was able to achieve with such restricted means: "The appearance of translucency or intermixture or film-like overlapping are achieved by the proper juxtaposition of pure color only."²
In addition, a rich selection of Albers's rarely exhibited color studies will be on display. These paintings on paper, which often include notations by the artist in graphite, provide a unique window into his working process, allowing the viewer to think, along with Albers, through color.
This exhibition forms a pendant to David Zwirner's previous Albers exhibition in New York (in November – December 2016), Josef Albers: Grey Scales, Grey Steps, Grey Ladders, which focused on the artist's use of black, white, and grey.
David Zwirner Books is publishing a fully illustrated catalogue that documents both the New York and London exhibitions. Josef Albers: Midnight and Noon will include writings by Josef Albers and new scholarship by Nicholas Fox Weber, Executive Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. The publication's title is inspired by Albers's 1964 series of color lithographs, which brought together two opposing color sets—blacks and greys and an array of yellows—in a single portfolio. The impossible simultaneity of "midnight" and "noon" moreover speaks to Albers's transcending of what he called "factual facts" in favor of the play of perception and illusion possible through art.³
¹ Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Goethe: The Collected Works Volume 12, Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. Douglas E. Miller (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 279.
² Josef Albers, "On My Variants [ca. 1948]," in Anni and Josef Albers: Latin American Journeys (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007), p. 147.
³ Josef Albers, "One Plus One Equals Three and More: Factual Facts and Actual Facts (1965)," in Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect (Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2014), p. 296.