November 29, 2012

Josef Albers: A Passion for Color

Detail of Color Study for Homage to the Square

I had always thought of Josef Albers as a rather cold and intellectual painter, whose grand project of Homages to the Square was rather dull and repetitive, and whose teaching foisted on art students the study of color using Color-aid papers. My thinking was turned about completely after seeing a splendid exhibition earlier this fall at the Morgan Library, Painting on Paper: Josef Albers in America. I just got the delicious (the color is a joy) catalog for the show, from which I photographed the images for this post. While delightedly wandering the show, I realized that for Albers painting was all about color, and in his studies on paper, I saw him experimenting with one color against another, slathering the paint thickly and exuberantly with a knife. These luscious studies were anything but dry; as Albers wrote:
Color is the means of my idiom. It's autonomic. I'm not paying 'homage to the square'. It's only the dish I serve my craziness about color in.

Almost Four (Color Study), 1936; oil on masonite, 13 1/2 x 15 1/4 in. 

Even in this early study we can see Albers' quirky and rich color sense. There is humor in the "almost" four (there's an oval missing), and in the tiny blue dots anchoring the lighter yellow.

Color Study for a Variant/Adobe, n.d.; oil on blotting paper, 19 x 24 in.

Albers and his wife Anni Albers moved to America in 1933 to teach at Black Mountain College. They first visited Mexico in 1935, and returned many times over the next 30 years. Josef Albers found there an intensity of color and light that was a tremendous influence on the way he saw color, and the forms of the architecture inspired a series of Adobe paintings.

Variant/Adobe, 1947; oil on blotting paper mounted on paper board, 17 1/4 x 24 in.

By using the same format over and over again, Albers could concentrate on how colors affected each other. In 1947 he wrote to a friend:
What interests me most now is how colors change one another according the the proportions and quantities [I use]...I'm especially proud when [I can make] colors lose their identity and become unrecognizable. Greens become blue, neutral grays become red violets and so on. Dark colors become light and vice versa.

Color Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper with varnish, 13 x 7 in.

Albers began his Homage to the Square series in 1950 and he would work with it for the rest of his life, until he died in 1976. In the exhibition at the Morgan Library, the studies for these works were arranged in color groups, as is the catalog, so we can see some of the variations within similar hues. He also worked with blacks and grays, saying
I can get the gloomiest gray to dance,...I love to make a very poor color rich, to let the adjacent colors make it beautiful. 

Color Study for Homage to the Square: Night Shades, ca. 1964; oil on blotting paper, 
11 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. 

There are so many beautiful color thoughts in these simple studies. The dark, warm reds of Night Shades play wonderfully against the surrounding deep turquoise. This catalog is going to be a great resource for me in the studio, inspiring a lot of new ideas. I should point out that these photos are photos of photos, and so several times removed from the original work. As I tried to adjust the color to bring it as close as possible to the printed image, I kept adjusting the Hue/Saturation sliders in Photoshop, which in itself was a strong lesson in seeing color. I thought back to my student years, and one summer at Skowhegan, where Gabriel Laderman was always exclaiming "Hue! Value! Intensity!".

Color Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper with varnish, 13 1/4 x 12 in.

On this work, as on several others, Albers painted a stripe of varnish over the color, to see what affect it would have. 

Color Studies for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper; 8 1/4 x 18 3/4 and 
4 1/2 x 9 3/8 in. 

Some of the works were small, quick explorations of color relationships. A fascinating aspect of Albers painting practice was that he never mixed colors; he used color straight from the tube, except for pink and purple, which he mixed. He sampled many different brands of the same hue, writing copious notes on the studies, and in that way, had complete control over the color relationships.

Color Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper with varnish, 13 1/4 x 12 in.

I love the note on the bottom of this piece: "Try again". A quote from Albers tells us:
I try to create the silence of an icon. That's what I'm after: the meditative icons of the 20th century. 

Color Study for Homage to the Square, Platinum, n.d.; oil on blotting paper, 11 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.

While I was color-adjusting this image, I was admiring the way the central grays reacted with the yellows and oranges around them, how the gray moved in and out, making the edge vibrant. 

Study for Homage to the Square with Color Study, n.d.; oil on blotting paper, 11 3/8 x 11 3/8 in.

Study for White Line Square (Homage to the Square), n.d.; oil, gouache, and graphite on 
blotting paper, 13 1/2 x 12 in. 

These final two works show Albers playing with cooler, lighter tones of greens and grays and yellows. The handling of the paint is particularly lively. After seeing this exhibition and meandering through the catalog, I will never think of Albers as a cool cerebral artist again. There is a marvelous quote from him that graces the back of the book, and makes his project much larger than selecting colors and form:
I think art parallels life. Color, in my opinion, behaves like a two distinct ways: first is self-realization and then in the realization of the relationship with others. In my paintings I have tried to make two polarities meet––independence and interdependence, as, for instance in Pompeian art. There's a certain red the Pompeians used that speaks in both these ways, first, in its relation to other colors around it, and then, as it appears alone, keeping its own face. In other words, one must combine both, being an individual and being a member of society....And from all this, you may conclude that I consider ethics and aesthetics as one. 

November 28, 2012

A New Painting: "Red Stripe"

Red Stripe, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 5 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. 

Is it possible for a painting of inert machine parts to call up emotions? It would seem that my paintings are essentially formal arrangements of color, shape, and light in a shallow space, though of course I always hope that they bring up associations, moods, ideas other than intellectual. My emotions have been very close to the surface recently, and probably because of that, working on this painting created more powerful feelings than usual for me: I sensed that I was painting a self portrait in the large green vertical cylinder. It was stalwart, upright, fully rounded, but only partly emerging from a darkness that could claim it again. The darkness is rich and beautiful, but it is the light that brings life.

November 26, 2012

The First Wintry Day

I awoke yesterday to a pink sky and white ground, and howling wind. November is usually the grayest month of the year here in northern Vermont, but this year it had been sunny and mild until yesterday.

The snow had fallen, but the sun also shone, brightening the dried grasses and the deep carmine of red osier dogwood.

Snow, heaped on stone walls, made a greater drama of boulders.

Snow, like a dollop of whipped cream, made dried hydrangeas festive.

I did not cut back my perennial border, so a benefit of laziness: seeing serried ranks of crisp golden leaves against the white backdrop.

More delicate are small weeds making round-topped thin lines, dark weeds, lighter shadows. I love the change of seasons and love winter's light, when snow covered ground bounces brightness into the house. I like being nestled in the warm indoors, thinking inwardly as the garden rests. Henry David Thoreau, in his journal entry of December 11, 1855, speaks of winter:
The winter, with its snow and ice, is not an evil to be corrected. It is as it was designed and made to be, for the artist has had leisure to add beauty to use. ....To perceive freshly, with fresh senses, is to be inspired. Great winter itself looked like a precious gem, reflecting rainbow colors from one angle. 

And from the Japanese 17th century poet Basho, a light touch on the season, in his poem "A Ball of Snow":
you make the fire
and I'll show you something wonderful:
a big ball of snow!

November 25, 2012

Making Hand-Toned Paper

With a hand-toned paper, using pigments and a glue size such as gelatin, we can have the most beautiful range of hue and value as background for painting or drawing. The irregularities of color and finish add character to the paper, just as hand dyed wool is more interesting than wool that is commercially vat dyed. I have a drawing project in mind (more on that soon) for these intensely colored papers. I will be using egg tempera, but I've used ink and gouache in the past.

I was thinking of Indian miniature painting while making these, and though I wasn't trying to copy their colors, they influenced me a great deal.

A glue is mixed with the pigment in order to fix it to the paper. I use ordinary food-grade gelatin, available in any supermarket. A small box of Knox gelatin contains 4 paper packets, each 1/4 oz. For this project I dissolve 1/2 oz gelatin, which is two little packets, in 18 ounces of water. So that it dissolves completely evenly, I heat the mixture gently over steam in a double boiler. It's useful to have some steam handy if the gelatin/pigment mixture starts to congeal, as it did several times during my work session. I just put the mixture over steam for a few moments and it liquified again. You don't want it steaming hot though.

My small enamel dye pots are perfect for this project, since I don't want to use anything that would later have food in it, which would not be a good idea. I put some pigment paste, here Caput Mortuum, into the pot; you can also use powdered pigments. I get all my pigments from a great supplier, Kremer Pigments; they have a store in NYC and also an online store here. For brushing the color onto the paper I have a couple of soft, synthetic hair 2 inch brushes. You can mix any color you'd like, dark or light in value. Many people like subtle grays, or light tones, which also look beautiful.

I add enough of the dissolved gelatin to make a fairly liquid paint, since it's easier to get an even tone with several thin layers than one or two thick ones. This is the paper with one layer of color.

And here it is with one and a half. I used some gorgeous handmade watercolor paper, with a rough surface, by Twinrocker, which I've had in my flat files for years. The paper curves while it's wet, but flattens quite well once it is dry, so there's no need to stretch it; that way you can paint clear to the edge, with no white border.

Here is one of my finished sheets, 15 inches square, made by painting 5 or 6 layers of the pigment/size mixture. Its imperfections and variations breathe life and air into the color, and make it a very enticing surface to work on.

November 23, 2012

A New Cardboard Print: "Three Purple Shapes", With Help From Popova

Three Purple Shapes, ink on Akatosashi paper; image size 10 x 12 in., paper size 18 1/2 x 22 1/2 in.; 
ed 4

Although this image is contained within the rectangle of the cardboard plate, the print appears to be of free floating shapes.

Cropped to just the image, it's easier to see the rectangle. I had a bit of a hard time working out the composition for this piece. Here is the initial study:

As you can see, I originally had the design entirely within the rectangle. I did several sketches, moving the angles here and there, up and down, but was never comfortable with the results. Then I thought to look at my catalog of of the work of the Russian constructivist Liubov Popova....

Liubov Popova, Pictorial Architectonic, 1916-17; oil on canvas, 41 1/2 x 27 3/4 in. artist I greatly admire, who I wrote about in this blog post. Looking at her work allowed me to free myself from the confines of the rectangle and think about overlapping shapes, think about shaking loose from an expected format.

November 20, 2012

At The Met: Artful Words

Calligraphy by Hon'ami Koetsu, Poem by Kiyowara no Fukayabu; early 17th century; poem card mounted as a hanging scroll, ink on paper with mica. 

That words in themselves can be beautiful, and that calligraphy is practiced as a fine art, is very evident when looking at some of the work in the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art. These exciting scrolls, screens, and ceramics inspired me to write a blog post on calligraphy, and to return to the new Islamic wing, where I knew I'd find more examples of the aesthetic possibilities of words. I learned that the poem above was written in the "scattered writing" technique: we read first the center, the darkest characters, which mean "to die from love", and then read left, then right. The entire poem, translated by John T. Carpenter, reads
If I die of a broken heart,
no other name than yours
will be raised in blame,
but no doubt you'll just say,
"That's life: nothing lasts forever."

Calligraphy by Hon'ami Koetsu; section of a poem scroll; shortly after 1615; fragment of a hand scroll mounted as a hanging scroll; ink, silver, and gold on paper.

This work by the same artist shows his surprising shifts of weight and value in his brushstrokes. Three poems inscribed here were part of a 100 poem anthology from the 13th century. One of the poems, which especially touches me, is by Fun'ya no Asayasu (9th century) and translated by John T. Carpenter:
Glistening drops of dew,
scattered by the wind
across autumn plains,
appear like unstrung jewels
scattered everywhere. 

Konoe Nobutada, Poetry Screen: Six Poems by Women Poets; early 17th century; ink on paper. 

I found this screen as wonderful and moving to look at as the justly famous screen of irises, which you can see here. The energy and freshness of the brush made it seem as though this was a description of life itself. The poems here are all love poems, full of longing and loss; here is one by Lady Horikawa (12th century), translated by John T. Carpenter:
How can I be sure your heart
will remain forever constant,
since my own feelings of love
are as tangled as my black hair
as the day breaks. 

Ogata Kenzan, Ceramic Tiles with Poems by the Thirty-six Immortal Poets; early 18th century; glazed stoneware with enamels.

Lastly from the Japanese show, this charming tile, with its little flat-topped trees, looking like so many toadstools, enlivened by the flowing script.

Fragment with Arabic Inscription, Iran, late 9th century; earthenware, white slip with black slip decoration under transparent glaze. 

The quality of Islamic calligraphy is much more formal and decorative than the Japanese, and every bit as exciting for me. I love the drama of the simple design.

Ceramic Mosque Lamp, Egypt, 15th century; stonepaste, polychrome painted under transparent glaze. 

There is an extravagant grace in this calligraphy.

Tile from an Inscriptional Frieze, Iran, A.D. 1333-34; stonepaste, modeled, inglaze-painted in blue, luster-painted on opaque white glaze. 

Here the flowing lines of script are echoed by the arabesques of foliage.

Page of Calligraphy from an Anthology of Poetry by Sa'di an Hafiz; calligrapher: Sultan 'Ali Mashhadi; present day Afghanistan, late 15th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. 

Leaf of Calligraphy; calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Nur; Iran, early 16th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. 

This Arabic calligraphy has a fluid, yet controlled form that seems to me to be closer to medieval European manuscripts in its flavor than to the Japanese form.  

Folio from a Qur'an Manuscript; Syria, second half of 8th century; ink opaque watercolor, and gold on parchment. 

Folio from a Qur'an Manuscript; India, early 15th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. 

The very early Qur'an above, with its thick elongated letters, is very different from the more cursive script, called Bihari, in the later one from India. Looking at these reminds me of the many fonts that designers have come up with in the 20th and now 21st centuries, how never-endingly inventive artists can be with the simple material of 26 letters in the alphabet.

Hebrew Bible; Germany, about 1300; ink on parchment. 

The imagery on the front page of this bible is made up of tiny words, taken from the masorah, "a system of notes developed by medieval scribes and scholars to ensure the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible"(from the wall label). The label also points out that this "micrography" is related to the Islamic calligraphic tradition, another instance of the closeness of these two cultures. Words as instruction, words as enlightenment, words as emotion, all enhanced by words as aesthetic forms.

November 18, 2012

A Walk in the Woods: Wandering Roots

On woodland paths, far from their originating trunks, the roots of trees meander above the ground, seeking out nourishment. At this time of year, with fallen leaves covering them, I must be careful where I put my feet so as not to trip over them; sometimes a root will rise many feet from a tree, giving no hint of its presence.

Their worn surfaces speak of many years above ground, with outer bark revealing inner layers....

or as a home for mosses.

Sometimes erosion reveals roots normally left hidden, showing complex structures, thick and thin.

What most surprises me is how some trees seem to have legs, ready to stride away, as their trunks split or their roots appear above the eroded soil.

This young birch bravely grew on a mound of earth, the root ball of a fallen tree. As the soil was washed away, these expressive roots have been exposed, a testament to life's tenacity.

As another illustration of the persistence of life, new branches rise from this root of a beech tree, a burst of invention waiting for the rebirth of spring.