Every species on Earth has a different relationship with colours. While butterflies can see up to a thousand more of them than we can, dogs’ eyes grant them a more restricted range; and while some of us humans are born colourblind, Cindy Lauper is constantly reminding us how she sees our True Colors shining through. But no matter our biological capacities, across all the animal kingdom, mere mortals and those belonging to the music industry alike, no one ever seemed to understand colours quite like Josef Albers.
It doesn’t matter how involved or not you are with the art world — there is very little chance that you’ve managed to escape Albers’ works. In 2016 alone he was the subject of exhibitions at David Zwirner and Stephen Friedman’s galleries in London, made appearances at international art fairs like FIAC in Paris, or more recently, Art Basel Miami Beach, and is permanently on display at monumental institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York City.
His series Hommage to the Square entails some of Albers’ most renown works, along with your not-interested-in-art friend’s favourite ammunition for condemnations like, “How is this art? I can do that, it’s just coloured shapes!”
Well, friend, not only it is art, it is also science. “But how is this science? I can do that, it’s ju-…”
Before you start reevaluating your friendships, let’s have a look at Albers’ Interaction of Color, which not only stands as a singular testament of his teaching philosophy but as the manifesto of his work.
Interaction of Color was originally published in 1963 by Yale University, where Albers was a professor as well as the head of the design department during the ’50s and ’60s. The book gathers many of its theories through kinds of exercises, as he would present them during his lectures. Its first part presents his theories, and is supported by a second part displaying examples of works, experiences, and therefore, proofs, of his scientific beliefs. This is the core of Albers’ teaching philosophy, putting his students directly in front of the problem so they can draw conclusions directly from experience instead of a more theoretical approach. A very Dead Poet Society way of going about things that aims at shaping minds rather than overfilling them with impractical information.
To peruse Interactions of Color is to become an auditor of Albers‘ classes, allowing you to fine tune your own perception of colours while benefitting from his extraordinary instruction at your own pace. Whether you are an artist yourself, an art student or simply keen on the subject, this very ability to comprehend pigmentation is essential to the processes and understanding of artistic creation.
Josef Albers opens his book with the following statement: “If one says ‘Red‘ (the name of the color) and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.“ What appears to be an obvious statement actually points at a major issue when it comes to studying colour. How can we talk about such a conceptual subject?
Like every systematic discipline, colour science has a very precise vocabulary of its own. Albers was known to be very exigent about the words to be used when treating the subject. For example, he differentiated colours from their factual and actual states. Respectively, how a colour appears to us when isolated and how a colour shows when in placed a certain context. Albers himself used the expression “magic of colours” for their ways of deceiving our optical senses.
Because just like magic, perception of colour really is illusionistic, an experience which tricks and faces us with the limits of our minds. It’s easy to see how a painter bent on mastering the subtleties and techniques driving colors’ interactions, with each other and with the viewer, would be able to create particularly eye-catching compositions. A couple of decades before Albers’ time, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were already playing the David Copperfields of hue, value and chroma. Hence the word “impressionism”: that first reaction upon seeing drops of different colours placed closely together, that seemingly look unified from a distance.
But knowing the magician’s secrets might not be enough. It takes practice. What Albers also demonstrates in Interaction of Color when supporting his theories with examples is that an artistic awareness cannot be shaped by a philosophical approach alone. As art lovers, our eyes are our most reliable allies, and they have to be trained. So when you’re facing a painting, not only you are able to know what you are seeing but also why you are seeing it this way.
This raises an interesting question for art enthusiasts. Won’t knowing how the tricks work ruin the show for you? Like any form of so-called magic, once you know where to look for the strings, once you’ve understood that white rabbit was in that top hat all along, once you’ve seen through a beauty’s plastic surgery or realised Santa Claus was actually a fictional employee of Coca-cola there is no going back, there is no unseeing.
If your relationship to art is simply to enjoy it, you might want to consider denial and accept to be hoodwinked a little. As adults it might be your last chance to allow yourselves to be thrilled by a little wizardry.
For the rest of us, though, poor workers of the third art world, we don’t have the luxury of choice. It is part of our jobs to know where the strings are, perhaps even how to tug at them properly. But our consolation prize for not letting ourselves get fooled is an open door to a fascinating world, the world of colours and their secrets. And with Albers leading the way of our enlightenment, we couldn’t hope for a better prophet, nor for a better bible than Interaction of Color.