In the 1940s, Albers embarked on a series of paintings called Variants that were inspired by adobe houses (a form of vernacular Mexican architecture built from dried mud and clay). Each painting was divided into a grid of small squares, which he systematically painted directly onto white ground, with no overlapping colours. Each Variant is made up of roughly equal amounts of different colours. Whichever colour appears to be dominant, therefore, is determined not by the quantity of paint but the way that colours are registered by the brain. While warm colours such as red and orange seem to push toward the front with varying intensities, cool colours often recede into the distance. The interplay of colours is further heightened by the subtle asymmetry of each composition.
In 1950, at the age of 62, Albers began what would become his signature series, the Homage to the Square. Over the next 26 years, until his death in 1976, he produced hundreds of variations on the basic compositional scheme of three or four squares set inside each other, with the squares slightly gravitating towards the bottom edge. What may at first appear to be a very narrow conceptual framework reveals itself as one of extraordinary perceptual complexity. Whereas the early Homages are characterised by a sense of chromatic adventurousness and the rejection of inherited colour theories, the later Homages are far more subtle in their gradations. Prolonged looking at these seemingly simple compositions produces intense visual pleasure, not least because it is impossible to retain an accurate afterimage. But the Homages should not be understood as a self-absorbed formalist exercise. Albers never left the Bauhaus behind, insisting to the end on the ethical dimension of art: a heightened sense of perception, he believed, would result in a greater awareness of the world.
Text by Achim Borchardt-Hume