Exceptional Works, Homage to the Square: Soaring | David Zwirner
Header graphic with the title of Josef Albers's work Homage to the Square: Soaring and the dimensions and creation date, 1959.
An installation view of a work by Josef Albers, titled Homage to the Square: Soaring, dated 1959.

In 1950, Josef Albers began the distinctive body of work that would cement his place as a pioneer of twentieth-century modernism: the Homage to the Square series. Made over nearly three decades, until the time of his death in 1976, the artist's signature nested-square paintings allowed him to experiment with endless color combinations and perceptual effects. 

This online presentation showcases his seminal work Homage to the Square: Soaring (1959). The painting comes from the Dreier family, who founded Black Mountain College. The Dreier collection is quite unique, having been put together primarily through gifts or purchases of artworks by artists who the Dreiers knew personally, as is true for this exceptional painting. 

A painting by Josef Albers, titled Homage to the Square: Soaring, dated 1959

Josef Albers

Homage to the Square: Soaring, 1959
Oil on Masonite

40 × 40 inches (101.6 × 101.6 cm)
Framed: 40 1/2 × 40 1/2 inches (102.9 × 102.9)

Homage to the Square: Soaring was acquired by Theodore and Barbara Dreier in 1960, the year after it was made, from the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. It has remained in the family since. The work was included in the gallery’s exhibition of Homage to the Square paintings held at the end of 1959 (Albers: Homage to the Square, November 30–December 26, 1959).

The title Homage to the Square: Soaring is a playful nod to Josef Albers’s use of brilliant cerulean pigment, which carries tremendous weight, viscosity, and density, and—in a work of this size and composition—creates the sensation of soaring up into the blue firmament of the painting.

 “[The colors] are to challenge or to echo each other, to support or to oppose one another....Such action, reaction, interaction—or interdependence—is sought in order to make obvious how colors influence and change each other; that the same color, for instance—with different grounds or neighbors—looks different...”
—Josef Albers

An installation view of the exhibition Josef Alnbers in Mexico at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2017.

Installation view, Josef Albers in Mexico, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2017. Photos by David Heald

Installation view, Josef Albers in Mexico, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2017. Photos by David Heald

An installation view of the exhibition Josef Alnbers in Mexico at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2017.
Installation view, Josef Albers in Mexico, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2017. Photos by David Heald
Installation view, Josef Albers in Mexico, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2017. Photos by David Heald

“His new show bears out that he is one of the best of our easel painters,” observed The New Yorker in its coverage of the Sidney Janis exhibition. “His series, Homage to the Square, established a classic form for his explorations in color. ‘Squares within squares’ does not describe them: the ambiguity of whether the squares are overlays, or concentric frames around a four-cornered theme, is a part of what sets the pictures breathing, as leaves breath [sic].”

A photo of a profile of Josef Albers in a magazine from 1950, written by Elaine de Kooning.
Read fellow painter Elaine de Kooning’s profile of Albers in ARTnews (1950)
Read fellow painter Elaine de Kooning’s profile of Albers in ARTnews (1950)

Donald Judd, then an art writer, reviewed the show in ARTnews. He noted that the paintings “are of high caliber...and are astonishing in their variety, both in format and color.”

Josef Albers, 1950. Photo by Rudy Burckhardt.
Josef Albers, 1950. Photo by Rudy Burckhardt. Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. © 2020 Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Josef Albers, 1950. Photo by Rudy Burckhardt. Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. © 2020 Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
An installation view of Josef Albers works at Tate Modern.
Installation view, works by Josef Albers in the ongoing Structure and Clarity exhibition, Tate Modern, London
Installation view, works by Josef Albers in the ongoing Structure and Clarity exhibition, Tate Modern, London

Albers began working on the Homage to the Square paintings in 1950, treating each one as a kind of experiment. He would use a palette knife rather than a brush and, with one or two exceptions, never mixed his colors. He would layer the paint on, controlling the pace as well as the weight, thickness, and transparency of the color.

Installation View of the exhibition Josef Albers: Grey Steps, Grey Scales, Grey Ladders, at David Zwirner New York, dated 3 November through 13 December 2016.

Installation view, Josef Albers: Grey Steps, Grey Scales, Grey Ladders, David Zwirner New York, 2016

Installation view, Josef Albers: Grey Steps, Grey Scales, Grey Ladders, David Zwirner New York, 2016

Installation view of the exhibition Josef Albers: Sunny Side Up, at David Zwirner London, dated January 13 through March 10 2017.

Installation view, Josef Albers: Sunny Side Up, David Zwirner London, 2017

Installation view, Josef Albers: Sunny Side Up, David Zwirner London, 2017

A photograph by Rudy Burckhardt of Josef Albers working in his studio, dated 1950.
Rudy Burckhardt, Josef Albers, 1950. © Rudy Burckhardt
Rudy Burckhardt, Josef Albers, 1950. © Rudy Burckhardt
A drawing of a color wheel.
Color Class Notes by Barbara Dreier, 1935. State Archives of North Carolina
Color Class Notes by Barbara Dreier, 1935. State Archives of North Carolina

Albers’s unique approach to color theory was key to his classes at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Theodore Dreier—whom Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius considered to be “the heart and soul” of Black Mountain—invited Josef to teach there in 1933, after the Alberses left the Bauhaus. Accepting Dreier’s invitation to join the newly established school, Albers described his mission there as “to open eyes.”

A telegram from Josef and Anni Albers to Theodore Dreier, dated 1947.
A telegram from Josef and Anni Albers dated November 27, 1947, to Theodore Dreier, thanking him for their time at Black Mountain College and in the United States
A telegram from Josef and Anni Albers dated November 27, 1947, to Theodore Dreier, thanking him for their time at Black Mountain College and in the United States
A publication titled Interaction of Color, written by Josef Albers, dated 1978.
A revised edition from 1975 of Josef Albers's seminal book Interaction of Color, originally published in 1963
A revised edition from 1975 of Josef Albers's seminal book Interaction of Color, originally published in 1963
An archival photo of black mountain college in north carolina.

Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1940–1941. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC

 

Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1940–1941. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC

 

An archival photo of students dancing at black mountain college.

Black Mountain College, Lee Hall, Blue Ridge Campus, 1938. © Courtesy of Western Regional Archives, States Archives of North Carolina

Black Mountain College, Lee Hall, Blue Ridge Campus, 1938. © Courtesy of Western Regional Archives, States Archives of North Carolina

An archival photo of staff and students at black mountain college.

Summer Arts Institute Faculty, Black Mountain College, 1946. Left to right: Leo Amino, Jacob Lawrence, Leo Lionni, Ted Dreier, Nora Lionni, Beaumont Newhall, Gwendolyn Lawrence, Ise Gropius, Jean Varda (in tree), Nancy Newhall (sitting), Walter Gropius, Mary “Molly” Gregory, Josef Albers, Anni Albers. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

Summer Arts Institute Faculty, Black Mountain College, 1946. Left to right: Leo Amino, Jacob Lawrence, Leo Lionni, Ted Dreier, Nora Lionni, Beaumont Newhall, Gwendolyn Lawrence, Ise Gropius, Jean Varda (in tree), Nancy Newhall (sitting), Walter Gropius, Mary “Molly” Gregory, Josef Albers, Anni Albers. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

A photograph of Josef Albers teaching students at Black Mountain College.

Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, c. 1946

Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, c. 1946

A photograph by Josef Breitenbach of Josef Albers teaching the color class at Black Mountain College in summer of 1944.
Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, 1944. Photo by Josef Breitenbach. Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. © Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation, Courtesy Gitterman Gallery
Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, 1944. Photo by Josef Breitenbach. Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. © Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation, Courtesy Gitterman Gallery

Josef and Anni Albers and Theodore (Ted) and Barbara (Bobbie) Dreier were kindred spirits. They took advantage of summer vacations, traveling together and bringing their impressions back to Black Mountain College.

Significant related works include Homage to the Square: Red Brass (1961), a similarly colored forty-by-forty inch Homage, in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri. A smaller eighteen-by-eighteen inch work, Homage to the Square: Late Reminder (1953), featuring turquoise rather than cerulean, is in the collection of the Portland Art Museum, Oregon.

 

Click here to view a historic selection of prints by Josef Albers from the Dreier collection.

A portrait of Theodore Dreier.

Portrait of Theodore Dreier, May 1941 (Black Mountain College faculty). Photo by Robert Haas. 
Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

Portrait of Theodore Dreier, May 1941 (Black Mountain College faculty). Photo by Robert Haas. 
Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

A photograph of Anni Albers, Theodore and Barbara Dreier.

Clara Porset, Ted Dreier, Bobbie Dreier, and Anni Albers, Cuba, 1934–35. Photo by Josef Albers. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.7.1146. © 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Clara Porset, Ted Dreier, Bobbie Dreier, and Anni Albers, Cuba, 1934–35. Photo by Josef Albers. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.7.1146. © 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1934, the four friends visited Cuba. In the coming years, the Alberses went to Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Acapulco, and visited the sites of Monte Albán, Mitla, and Teotihuacan. On many occasions, the Dreiers joined them.

Homage to the Square: Soaring (1959) will be included in the Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Josef Albers, 1914–1976, currently being prepared by The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and is registered under the number 1959.1.93.

A detail of a work by Josef Albers, titled Homage to the Square: Soaring.

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Soaring, 1959 (detail)

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Soaring, 1959 (detail)

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