Study for Homage to the Square: Beaming is an oil painting on fibreboard by the German artist Josef Albers. The painting shows a series of three quasi-concentric squares in varying shades of blue. The largest square is painted in bright blue and stretches to the outmost edges of the fibreboard. This large square contains within it a smaller blue painted square, darker and more muted in tone. This, in turn, contains a much smaller blue-green painted square. Set inside one another, these quasi-concentric squares seem to drift towards the bottom edge of the painting.
Study for Homage to the Square: Beaming was made while Albers was living in New Haven, Connecticut, his home from 1950 until his death. As its title indicates, the painting is a study for one of Albers’s Homage to the Square series of paintings, which he began c.1949–50. Albers made more than 2,000 of these paintings between 1949 and 1976 and there are four other examples in Tate’s collection (see Tate T00783, T02311, T02312 and T12215). This example is dated 1963 and therefore falls approximately in the middle of the series chronologically.
In this and other paintings in his Homage to the Square series, Albers investigates the interaction of colours with one another, adjusting hue, tone and intensity to explore optical effects. In his writings of the period Albers also examined the psychological effect of such optical experiences on the viewer. The paint was applied with a palette knife directly from the tube (with some exceptions) onto a panel prepared with a white ground. Isolated flat squares of colour give the illusion of receding or advancing. At times the isolated colours seem to fuse to generate new colours that appear to hover in front of the picture plane, leaving the viewer with after-images.
Albers’s pragmatic exploration of colour and form in the Homage to the Square series was accompanied in 1963 by his book Interaction of Color. The book offers ‘an experimental way of studying color and of teaching color’, in which Albers emphasises the practical exploration of colour above any theoretical concerns (see Albers 2006, p.1). For Albers, working with colour was about engaging with materials in a subjective manner: ‘as we begin principally with the material, color itself, and its action and interaction as registered in our minds, we practice first and mainly a study of ourselves’ (Albers 2006, p.52).
From 1908 to 1915 Albers worked as a schoolteacher. Following a period of illness in 1916, he trained in art schools in Essen and Munich. In 1920, a year after the Weimar Bauhaus opened, he joined as its eldest student and began teaching there in 1923. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, Albers was made a professor and taught Basic Design. Following the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933 and the rise of Nazism in Germany, Albers and his wife Anni moved to the United States to teach at the newly founded Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The couple left Black Mountain College in 1949, the same year that Josef Albers began his Homage to the Square series. In 1950 Albers was invited to teach in the Design Department at Yale University, where he remained until 1958.
These works, austere at first glance, deploy ‘minimum means for maximum effect’ (Albers quoted in Nicholas Fox Weber, ‘Josef Albers Paintings’, in Waddington Galleries 2009, p.5). Yet their precision and apparent simplicity belies the sensitivity behind their making. In his analysis of Albers’s correspondence with the poet Franz Perdekamp in 1916, Nicholas Fox Weber identified some of the crucial terms and ideas in Albers’s conception of the artwork:
When he wrote, in 1916, that he loved ‘the square and hard,’ he had no idea, of course, how prescient this was of the extraordinary body of art he would create on the other side of the ocean and after yet another world war. But the value system – the idea that ‘firm and wild’ is valuable, but that it has to grow from ‘warmth and softness’ are the essence of the spirit in which he painted the Homages. Albers believed that art work, while it should be done well and done carefully, fails if it lacks tenderness.
(Weber 2009, p.4.)
Josef Albers, Interaction of Color , revised and expanded edn, New Haven and London 2006.
Josef Albers: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Waddington Galleries, London 2009.
Tone Hansen and Milena Hoegsberg (eds.), Josef Albers: No tricks, no twinkling of the eyes, exhibition catalogue, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo 2014.