Dive into this 1960 conversation with acclaimed artist Josef Albers, filmed at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Hosted by writer and critic Brian O’Doherty, Albers reflects on his artistic philosophy and the nature of his works, including his iconic “Homage to the Square” series.
Welcome to the "All Arts Vault."
I'm Maddie Orton.
The vault is the place to go for special access
to all things arts,
so we're going into the archives to uncover some of our greatest
gems from over 50 years of archival content,
and share these programs with you
as they would have been seen decades ago,
when they first aired.
Today we're looking at the square,
one of the simplest geometric forms,
four equal sides with four equal angles.
For artist Josef Albers,
this simple shape was a source of endless inspiration.
It would serve as a jumping off point
for his series of paintings titled "Homage To The Square,"
which features chromatic squares nested inside one another
to create an ever-shifting conversation
between color, form and, of course, the viewer.
In this 1960 episode of "Invitation To Art,"
host and art critic Brian O'Doherty
takes us inside the Museum of Fine Arts Boston
for a look at Albers' work.
You'll get to see an engaging discussion
between our host and Albers,
one that examines the artist's philosophy.
Be sure to keep an eye out for Albers'
"Structural Constellation" series in the show, too.
These deceptively simple works of geometric images
shift perspective the longer viewers gaze at them
and are a fantastic example of Albers' playful nature.
See, it is hip to be square.
Let's explore the words and works of the great Josef Albers.
The origin of art is the discrepancy
between physical effect and psychic effect.
The content of art is visual formulation
of our reaction to life,
and the measure of art is the ratio of effort to effect,
and the aim of art is revelation and evocation of vision.
O'Doherty: The art of Josef Albers, above all,
makes us aware of the act of vision.
His art is a research into visual phenomena,
which is informed by a high and rarified sense of poetry,
which transforms such phenomena into art.
It's not an easy art, but it's a chaste and classic art
of equilibrium, of balance, of symmetry.
Yet it also has its paradoxes and contradictions,
for his creations,
while seemingly so still and crystalline,
are microcosms, very often, of a stressful universe.
They present a complex of ambiguities to us
which are constantly shifting,
constantly changing, in an image,
a highly distilled image, of life itself.
Here the white lines create planes and right angles
which are perpetually undergoing alteration.
This image is alive.
Perhaps you can see that more clearly in this,
from a series called "Structural Constellations."
It constantly changes as we look.
Now we are looking down on it.
Then there's an alteration in our point of view.
Now we are looking at it from below.
See, the plane changes, and as it changes,
so does our reading of the other planes at the top right
and the bottom left.
When we try to follow these planes through
to a logical resolution,
we find ourselves constantly contradicted.
If for instance we are looking down,
the top right plane becomes wrenched.
It doesn't seem to fit in, but then suddenly it does,
but then the bottom one doesn't.
There's a conflict here,
in our perception of this figure,
that gives the central area a sense of stress and torsion.
In the more complex structures, this is carried farther.
Here are what appears to be two boxes
which are carefully adjusted to an area of maximum stress
between the two, at the center.
They make use of the phenomenon
which psychologists call perceptual ambiguity,
which mirror many points of view and perhaps,
in these pictures, philosophical concepts.
Now the complications to which this can be brought are immense.
This constant shifting gives them a positive life
of their own, independent of man and nature.
The observer is like a mirror
in which they, the pictures,
watch their own changes.
In them, art achieves a sort of autonomy.
Yet, of course, the observer changes, too.
In fact, the art of Josef Albers,
as the art of no other artist,
makes one aware of the interaction
between the picture and the observer.
They are each relative one to the other,
constantly shifting, as are all components of life.
Now the other great area to which Josef Albers
has devoted himself in recent years
is, of course, the square, and here again
he submits himself to an intense discipline.
All these squares are mathematically measured in area.
He uses color only directly from the tube.
He puts it on and forms these pictures.
They are all inventions in the real sense.
The art of Josef Albers might be described
as the most consistent exploration
of the dialectic of the eye in modern art.
He is a great artist and a great teacher.
With his wife, Anni Albers, he was the first of the Bauhaus
to come to America in 1933,
and I'd like you to meet him.
Mr. Albers, you have said that when you are creating,
you are not aware of abstraction,
or you are not aware of expression.
Now, I don't understand this because what else
is there to be aware of.
I mean, surely that's the lot of it?
How should I say?
I like that you mentioned before
that I'm aiming at poetry.
That means I do not build...
I do not connect words for the words' sake,
but for the interval's sake.
What is between the means?
How does one read a meaning into means?
This is my aim, and therefore,
I have to train my articulation, my formulation.
My main job, so to say, is to produce a formulation
that can be read, and I don't aim at one reading.
As gentlemen prefer blondes, as I say often in my classes,
someone likes beer, someone likes Coca-Cola,
we all submit knowingly or unknowingly
to preferences and prejudices.
I'm not preferring blondes.
I tried to be more democratic, a little bit more independent.
So, what I'd like to add this, like in music,
as long as we hear tones,
one tone and another tone,
and don't hear the in-between tones, we don't hear music.
As any knowledge of acoustics does not improve any musicality,
so the registration of the means
has only an aim that there is a relatedness,
and I want that there are many meanings,
and instead of ambiguity,
I prefer the word of multiple meaning.
And if I see one of my constructions,
one of my paintings that has seven meanings
instead of yesterday's painting's six meanings,
then I feel happy.
Does it make...
Yes, but what is the reality
with which your paintings are contact?
They say they are not self expression.
They are not pure abstraction.
What is the reality?
You say that they have a reality of their own.
Is that right?
It seems I have to say yes.
They have... What is reality?
This word, I never get into my vocabulary,
you see, and that's...
I don't have in my reality... I am --
They have a life of their own.
They have a life. That sounds to me right.
They live to me,
and I hope that the observers of them
have a similar life experience.
Let us call it that way. Does that make sense?
My English should be better, I know.
Yes, words are very difficult
to put on these things because --
Well, always the verbal formulation
cannot be congruent to a visual formulation.
When we try to make it clear by words,
it's a very good thing to do.
It's bad of many artists refuse. They do, indeed.
And that is what I think is regrettable.
The real ones have always done a great effort
to also parallel their visual formulations
with their verbal formulations,
and then you see the real ones, they are very articulate
and do not excuse themselves because they are not articulate.
Now you speak of formulations,
and you speak of your means. Ja.
Now, your means, I take it, are lines and colors,
just as the means for the musician are tones.
Right, right, yeah, right.
Well, now do your lines and colors
have as little relation to real sounds,
or sounds that you hear in reality, for the musician,
do you colors have as little... and lines...
have as little relation to reality that we see around us?
Oh, to see in nature or so? Nature is the word.
No, well, I don't think so.
I think as you see between two faces,
friendship or non-friendship, you read it into the faces.
So I want and ask my observers of my work
to read something into that,
and if they come close to my meaning, then that's fine.
If I compose a painting in major,
and somebody says, "That looks very sad,"
then I feel that was a failure with that person.
But since art is not an object,
but art is a personal experience...
That maybe not --
maybe it doesn't count
that he doesn't follow me.
Well, now I'm just interested in this point of nature
because the point of departure for most artists,
for every artist, really, has been nature.
It has been his personal experience
of the world around him.
Now I can't see the point of connection
between natural effect and your art.
What is that connection?
Is there a connection, or am I on the wrong track?
I'm afraid that concept comes from the 19th century,
in which always nature was the leader
for any artistic performance.
But I don't think it is true anymore today.
You see, if I've come to my own working, I would say
I often see my pictures with closed eyes before.
I see lines working with each other with closed eyes,
and they don't come from trees,
and they don't come from lions or from flowers,
not from Madonnas.
They come from...
I have -- and sport.
My sport is to see between two lines something happening,
and now I would like to say, in another term,
I believe when I say the discrepancy
between physical effect and psychic effect,
then I mean between actual facts and factual facts.
What's the difference, now?
Well, the difference is, that is one finger.
Mm-hmm. And this is one finger.
One finger and one finger are two fingers.
Mm-hmm. But when I say this is one,
not necessarily a finger, that is a width,
and I put the third one
so that the width in between is the same...
It becomes a positive area.
...and I can say one and one is three,
and that's only permitted in art.
In banking, it is forbidden. Yeah.
In mathematics, you fall through the examination,
if you say one and one is three.
Yeah. Only art.
But I go further.
In art, one and one is four.
One and one makes four directions,
four angles, equal or unequal.
I can read four and four and four.
I can read in this 60 meanings,
and this is what is the discrepancy
between physical effect.
That's the excitement, that I see more than a cow does.
A cow sees grass only as an edible vegetable.
But we can see it as a fur.
We can see it as a forest,
when we put our eyes deep enough in.
Then we are the poets. Mm-hmm.
The poet sees more than facts.
The facts are dead when it comes to creation,
and therefore, I distinguish, to repeat myself,
actual facts from factual facts,
and actual facts is giving up identity.
Well, now you mentioned actual facts,
which are in here more, and factual facts,
which are dead of themselves. Well, yeah.
How does this come in, such a picture as this?
Can you just give an illustration of it?
For instance, in this square that we have here.
What is the actual fact of this?
The actual facts, there are four straight lines,
all done by a ruler and a pen. Yes.
But when I put the neighbors that way, together, one is loud,
and one is not so loud, again, a little bit louder,
that I give them different action.
Effect line means different boundaries, different meetings.
Meeting this way, meeting this way, meeting this way.
These are the facts, factual facts?
And that's the effect.
This is acting.
This line has several, several, several performances,
and therefore, it's an actor.
The line... I make this line an actor,
and that is an actual fact for that reason,
and not any more in factual fact.
Factual facts belong to the man who sells cigars.
The cigars are a factual fact. They cost 10 cents.
That's it. That's it. You see?
He bought them cheaper, that...
So then the fact that you give life is the actual effect?
But I want to have the interworlds.
What is that doing here?
What is between the lines? Yes, yes.
Between the lines is the same precise color,
but it looks here different from there.
The intersection -- intersecting takes place.
Yes. I read more than there is.
One and one is four.
An artist always sells more than the buyer buys.
It's good business today, as I know it.
Yeah, art is good business.
Art is a good business today now.
We sell more than the buyer knows.
In particular, they expect that,
that it contains more, comes out later.
Well, now is this, to you, a very point of creation,
the fact that you can give life to these, is they can change?
Right. This is the point?
That's the point. I see.
That is formulation -- make it say several things.
The more things it says -- you call it ambiguous meaning,
I call it multiple meaning, multiple readings.
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. The means leads to a reading.
This is my job. Mm-hmm.
Well, now I'll take you up on another point, sir,
and that is that you said, "Art, the aim of art,
is the visual formulation of our reaction to life."
Yeah. You said that in the beginning.
Well, now how is this a reaction to life?
It is not a direct one, is it?
Is it indirect?
Well, in doing and developing this further,
I cannot help that my associations contact me
with former experiences.
So I would say I start from experiences
and lead this, friendly or unfriendly,
I lead it always between polarities.
It is between loud and not loud.
It is between young and old, between spring and winter,
or what you ever find is contrast in life.
This acts between polarities, and to bring...
and the more tension there is between the polarities.
If I can make black and white behave together
instead of shooting at each other only, you see,
then I feel proud, I'd say, instead of creative.
I cannot say that I am creative.
That's others' job to say.
Mm-hmm. You did it.
Well, now there's something else,
and you always speak of these colors as if they were alive.
"They breathe into each other,"
you have said again and again to me.
Right, right, right. "I hear an echo,"
and "I like the smell of this."
You use your other sense very much in describing this.
Right, very much, yeah. Now, does your art
have its origin in a network of the senses?
Do you feel that very much, that the other sense
come into focus in your visual creation?
Do you feel this?
Yeah, I would say
I've tried to demonstrate
that the conception of a psychology,
it was, until recently,
that there is no contact between the visual perception
with the auditory perception.
We know now it's not true anymore.
There is a connection.
Everyone knows that how the color of food looks
makes appetite or spoils appetite.
We have already that contact, this one,
between the look and the taste,
and there is it between the sound and the vision.
There is, and I tried to come
and working out these constellations,
constellations not only of lines and points, also of color.
You see? It...
Oh, what is that word?
Mm-hmm. Color combinations...
Find words, quickly.
It's a constellation, whether the colors meet this way
or this way or this way or this way
or this way or this way.
Mm-hmm. And that is what excites me.
So do you think that the point
of departure of your art...
Then it is definitely not some natural effect around you.
It is... The origin is more inbred.
It is deeper, and it rises,
perhaps, from other sense, as well.
I go much more out from my imagination,
but cannot help to see always contact with experience,
ahead, around me, in my former...
in my doings before. Yes, yes, yes.
Well, now there is another point.
You have, at all time,
subjected yourself to an intense discipline.
At the age of 32, when most men consider their training over,
you went back to school again.
You went to the Bauhaus again. Right, right.
Discipline seems to be terribly important to your art.
It seems to be crucial to it.
How do you explain that?
I'm just German.
No, I don't know.
How do you have an explanation for that?
You're a Westphalian. You see, I...
I'm Westphalian. You're a Westphalian.
That's right. That's right.
I'm Westphalian, just Westphalian.
Yeah. You found...
No, it's a quality what...
that I think, any articulation aims at precision,
at precise performance.
Control. And control,
and therefore I am not modern, in the sense of contemporary.
Well, now there's one other crucial point,
and it's this, that in looking at your pictures,
very often I get a sense of wrenching.
A sense, for instance, that this is logic,
and then I go into it, and the logic breaks.
I get the sense that this is objective.
Yeah? And then I go into it,
and I find it completely subjective.
Now, these poles, these contradictions,
keep occurring in your art.
It is objective to subjective at the same time.
Yeah. That's just --
Now, this consciousness of two poles
seems to be very important to your art.
Yeah, yeah, that's --
You mentioned polarities a moment ago.
Also that something is logical and illogical.
This is it?
This is, for me, the excitement.
You see, life, in my opinion...
not nature... life occurs between polarities.
Inaqua destillata... What is it in English?
It's distilled water. Distilled water.
Distilled water, there is no life force.
But you know that. Yes.
Not even the algaes can live there.
Yes. In ice cold water,
there's no life, either.
In boiling water, not either.
It is only when water is warm and cold,
and water contains different minerals
or whatever you call it.
There is life,
and the oneness, the pure water is dead.
You see, only in a place between polarities, summer and winter,
then it will produce life.
Is that in comparison? That I see, yes.
I don't know whether I answered.
It is a sort of middle way, is it,
within awareness polarities, awareness of possibilities?
Well, when I speak moving between polarities,
it means reading more showers and more noise.
It reads more young and more old.
More warm and cold.
I have warm and cold in one painting at the same time.
I think then that has a challenge to look into it.
This is the elusiveness of your art, which is the surprise.
Well, you know my formulation, where I said,
"Art is looking at us. Art is not to be looked at."
Who is not attracted by a visual formulation?
He doesn't see art, you see.
It's not to be said he is stupid or so.
He is not ready that moment to perceive some...
perceive a performance, which is not to be heard, but to be seen.
The action between my means are not always,
let's say, palatable,
as we like cereal in the morning and not in the evening.
We are indifferent at different times,
perceptive to very different things.
What we like on Saturdays, we won't like on Monday morning.
And so there is a different readiness
to swallow or not to swallow.
Now the extreme discipline to which you apply to your art
brings one to certain scientific concepts of times.
Now do you think there's any parallel between
any scientific concept and your own art?
Have you found at the time,
any time in the course of your artistic life,
a parallel striking you?
Once I was asked my a so-called modern art historian,
he saw something, there was so much science in my stuff.
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And I said,
"Whether I read all the scientific magazines
what is going on now,"
and I disappointed him very much when I said,
"No, not at all, and never."
He was very disappointed.
He thinks art can, by applying science, can be developed.
Now I mentioned sometimes that, in my variance,
I have worked for several years with quantities of color.
I have made an adobe house-like shape...
I didn't start with the adobe house...
and I have measured the areal amount of color.
Yeah. And I came to statements...
When I take that painting down, you can read it on the rear.
On the back.
It says 92 of the first color,
92 of the third color to second color,
the third one is 94, two more.
But the fourth one has two less, for that reason.
So they come practically in pairs to the same amount,
and when I came to such a conclusion,
to see whether the amount, equal amount,
of colors hasn't reserved on the appearance,
on the convincing appearance, on the...
Yeah, that it becomes convincing.
So it was during the war, and when that...
After the war, a friend of our faculty,
the scientists and physicists, came to me and said,
"Can I see your latest paintings?"
She was very interested in painting, also.
So I said, "Yes," and I told her this,
and she got very excited and said,
"This is just what we found
in our study of the atom structure."
Atom crystals depend on being not parallel, not...
Regular? Not symmetrical.
There has to be an off symmetry.
As I said, 90 or 92 and 92 and 94 and 90.
That is off symmetry, and they found out any crystal
that has complete symmetry falls apart.
It doesn't exist, and...
And you, in your art... And she said,
"Did you know that when you painted?"
I said, "I had no idea. That is just this wonderful thing
in the world, the duplicity of the events
that is parallel by accident, so to say.
We are right visually to do it, and we are intellectually...
visually in another field...
to find in similar relatedness and see,
and are excited that without contact, we go parallel."
And that's also exciting, as well.
This is very exciting because you seem to come across,
through intuition, physical fact and cosmic fact,
cosmic law, the law behind the universe, in a way.
Do you feel that this is in your art?
Do you feel yourself... I don't...
I hope it is. I don't...
Do you feel yourself guided by this, in any way?
No, not... I don't feel guided,
and I don't... I cannot say yes.
I cannot know. I hope it is.
In similar case, it's pointillism.
Pointillism was an application of a scientific discovery.
The spectrum divided lead...
Science. ...lead the artist
to follow the Chevreul theory
that we can see the colors together instead of separated.
But SALT later, in Germany,
found still more precise how it works.
Chevreul, in this way, has seduced them,
the pointillists, to apply science in the beginning.
And it was a perception, it was...
But later, of course, they didn't give a damn,
and they just painted how they felt.
Now, an artist is always very concerned...
Just one last little question for you.
An artist is always very concerned about
his own handwriting in his work.
This is his. This is mine.
This is the expression of myself.
Do you mind if your pictures are copied?
No, I'm all for it.
I don't care a bit about my personal handwriting.
I don't care.
You're for your pictures being copied?
I'm against... No, I'm against...
I would say if one wants to copy my painting,
I say, "Please, please, do it." Yes.
But I'm not interested in handwriting,
particularly if that handwriting is the so-called texture,
what is put on top.
You know? If my colors show some textures,
then it is the result of the paint.
What is not 100 percent opaque and covering,
it comes a little bit through the ground, you see.
But I never produce textures. I see.
Well, I'm sorry to interrupt you here, but we must.
You have been listening to Josef Albers
talk about his subtle and illusive art.
Thank you very much.
>> This is NET, National Educational Television.
>> My favorite part of that interview is when Albers says,
"My sport is to see, between two lines, something happening."
For Albers, as he says, life occurs between polarities,
and those spaces between, say, two squares,
offered limitless possibilities for exploration.
I hope you enjoyed this journey back to 1960 with us.
I'm Maddie Orton.
See you next time on the "All Arts Vault."