Ludwig Sander

Three Blues


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Ludwig Sander 1906–1975
Lithograph on paper
Image: 410 × 464 mm
Presented by the Museum of Modern Art, New York 1976


Three Blues 1966 is an abstract lithograph by the American artist Ludwig Sander. The almost square pictorial field consists of six distinct areas coloured in three shades of blue and divided by apparently straight black lines. The largest square is painted in the lightest hue, while thin bands above and below it, as well as a vertical rectangle down the left of the print, are darker in tone. The smaller square in the top left corner and the thin band at the bottom left are coloured in a greener tone of blue. This particular print was produced as part of an edition of 210 and is signed, numbered and titled by the artist beneath the impression.

Working primarily as a colour field painter – a term first applied in the 1950s to American artists working with large areas of single, flat colour – Sander produced his painted works in oil by building up opaque coverings of pigment, one coat on another, within the discreet sections of the canvas (see, for instance, Tioga II 1969, Museum of Modern Art, New York). To achieve a comparable effect in his lithographs required the use of multiple stones or plates, each inked with a different colour. Although made in a different medium to the oil paintings that dominated his practice, in its design Three Blues is representative of the style in which Sander worked from the 1950s until his death in 1975. These were characterised by a limited number of ‘impure’ blues, yellows, greens or reds that he arrived at intuitively through continued mixing (Auping 1989, p.67). As Sander stated:

When I put forth colors on the canvas it is originally simply paint applied to a surface. And then I begin to modulate the colors. Each change of one causes a change of all others. And suddenly ‘it’ is there … My approach is completely empirical, if that is what you want to call it. The longer I work with a colour, let’s say yellow, the better I know what is my pigment.
(Quoted in Morgan 1992, p.7.)

Rather than adhering to strictly ruled horizontals and verticals, the black lines that separate Sander’s areas of colour are more natural and tend towards subtle diagonals. In Three Blues this is most evident in the line delineating the two narrow bands at the bottom, which rises almost imperceptibly from the left of the pictorial field to the right. Architect Peter Blake, who was a friend of Sander, recalled how ‘he said he liked them [the lines] to seem straight but to be, in truth, just imperceptibly off; one was amazed to see them drawn by such a precise vision’. (Peter Blake, ‘Ludwig Sander’, Art in America, January–February 1976, p.21.) The lack of rigidity in these divisions gives force to the areas of colour, as if they were pushing their edges. This in turn gives the print a sense of implied vibration. Sander’s style finds its roots in the neo-plasticism of Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), employing a similar formula of horizontal and vertical lines defining rectangular areas of colour, but his use of gesture and his deviation from primary colours and straight lines derive from his proximity to the development of abstract expressionism in America in the 1950s (Auping 1989, p.68).

Sander himself generally refrained from providing any ‘literary embroidery’ to his paintings, claiming in 1968 that ‘the painting is a thing in itself’ (quoted in Auping 1989, p.158). In 1983 he made it clear, however, that to an extent he was aiming at meaning beyond the materiality of the art object: ‘by the time that my major premises became clear to me I had already for a long time been certain that a dematerialisation must be achieved beyond the mere paint and canvas’ (quoted in Morgan 1992, p.6). This he aimed to achieve through experimentation with colour relations and their divisions in the picture plane. In Three Blues, the lighter tones given by the slight translucency of the printer’s ink lend the piece an airy feel, while the bleed of colour into the margins further increases the energy of the rectilinear sections.

Art historian and critic Irving Sandler has remarked that Sander’s expansive planes of colour are reminiscent of the space of landscape, a suggestion also often related to abstract expressionist colour field painting (Auping 1989, p.68). Since Sander spent half the year in his studio by the sea in Sagaponack, Long Island, during the period in which Three Blues was produced, it is tempting to read a coastal scene in the airy variations of blue.

Further reading
Michael Auping (ed.), Abstraction, Geometry, Painting: Selected Abstract Painting in America Since 1945, New York 1989, pp.67–8, 158, 213.
Robert C. Morgan, Ludwig Sander: An Overview, New York 1992, pp.5–8.
Simon Pettet (ed.), James Schuyler, Selected Art Writings: James Schuyler, Santa Rosa 1998, pp.269–75.

Arthur Goodwin
April 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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