Josef Albers: Sonic Albers
David Zwirner is pleased to present Sonic Albers, an exhibition that examines Josef Albers’s relationship to music, musical imagery, and sonic phenomena, on view at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location in New York. Organized in collaboration with The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, the show will provide a far-reaching look at this underexplored facet of the artist’s practice. It will feature a wide selection of paintings, glassworks, drawings, and ephemera from throughout Albers’s career, including a number of the album covers he designed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Image: Installation view, Josef Albers: Sonic Albers, David Zwirner, New York, 2019
The genesis of this exhibition is the book Sonic Design: The Nature of Sound and Music. Josef Albers was fascinated by this incisive text by Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot when it came out in early 1976. The chapter on "musical space" reproduces one of Albers’s Structural Constellations from 1957 and quotes from the tauntingly titled Despite Straight Lines, a 1961 book about Albers’s linear geometric art: "As in Schoenberg’s Opus 9, no. 6, details vibrate in several directions simultaneously.'
Sonic Design launched the 87-year-old artist on an adventure. The comparison to music delighted him. The link to Schoenberg did too; Kandinsky had invited the composer to the Bauhaus, where Albers studied and taught. These creative geniuses all exulted in experimentation and the unprecedented. And the intersection of music and art was rich territory for them. Albers spoke and wrote about it vividly; for instance, he notes of his glass construction Fugue (c. 1926) that "it presents a very pronounced parallel to the fundamental structure of classical music.… It recalls beat (as measured by metronome) in its vertical, static order.… It performs rhythm … by changing pronunciation and speed.… As to instrumentation, it consists of three very contrasting voices, white and black on a bright red ground.… As a parallel to ‘acoustic’ mixture in music, it produces, in perceptual interaction, many nuances of the three colors used."
The relationship of only a few solid colors, not mixed, but each pure and independent, adjacent to one another, as in Albers’s Variants and Homages to the Square, creates the acoustic mixtures of music—in all their nuances and richness. Albers once told an interviewer What I want is to play staccato and legato—and all the other musical terms. Look at his juxtaposed greens and blue-greens in the Variants and Homages in this exhibition, and you are rewarded with a range of tempos and the impact of careful orchestration in which individual instruments combine for ever-changing sequences of glorious chords.
The glories of music were vital to Albers; he replicated treble clefs and piano keyboards in his early art. What had movement and rhythm, adventurousness as well as grace, spirit with order, delighted him in whatever he heard. He and Anni Albers happened upon the music of Charles Ives one day on the car radio and thrilled to it, akin to what they felt during their Christmas Eve rituals of listening to a recording of a performance on a period harpsichord of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on their cassette tape player.
—Text by Nicholas Fox Weber, Executive Director, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation
In 1933, Josef Albers and his wife, Anni, emigrated to the United States to take up teaching positions at Black Mountain College, an experimental art school near Asheville, North Carolina. The unique, avant-garde program Josef designed integrated different art forms, an approach propelled by his fervent belief in the relationships between elements as the starting point for cultivating vision. Among those Albers invited to teach at Black Mountain were the composer John Cage and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who together staged a production of Erik Satie’s The Ruse of Medusa (1913) at the school’s 1948 summer session.
In a lecture delivered in Asheville in 1935, Albers drew on analogies with music in discussing abstract art: "Why should we painters not have the same right to combine, like the musician, our medium—form, colors, proportions and so on. You allow the architect to use forms without any representation. You allow the dancer to combine his movements to a composition without any sense of a thing or a situation, or to work only in a musical way. Everybody who likes Fred Astaire is an admirer of abstract art, and he who wants to dance like him, wants to be an abstract artist."
What are pure art aims?
That music is primarily a combination of tones
Painting a combination of colors
Dancing a combination of movements.
Let us say this in artistic terms: we want more
Dynamic and static
Weight and qualities
Rhythm and balance
and so on.
—Josef Albers in "Abstract Art," a paper presented at City Hall, Asheville, North Carolina, August 1935
In the late 1950s, a former student of Albers’s at Yale, Charles E. Murphy, then artistic director at Command Records, invited the artist to contribute artwork for the first album cover he managed for the label. From 1959 to 1962, Albers created seven designs for Command Records—Provocative Percussion I, II, and III; Persuasive Percussion Iand III; Pictures at an Exhibition; and Magnificent Two-Piano Performances—all of which are included in this exhibition. Albers’s collaboration with Command, which may also have been bolstered by him having taught the label’s cofounder Enoch Light’s daughter at Black Mountain College, is a rare example of the artist’s commercial work. With energetic compositions employing variations on Albers’s signature geometric elements including squares, circles, and grids, the album covers give unique visual expression to the musical scores they contained.
Interaction of Color "places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice.… Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical—neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side—so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color. This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of music, or of art." —Josef Albers in Interaction of Color, his seminal text conceived as a handbook and teaching aid for artists, instructors, and students that was originally published by Yale University Press in 1963