Art lovers expect much from artists deemed 20th-century masters. Seeing well-known work through fresh eyes is no easy feat, and the filter of narrative, biography, and intellectual history is not easily dislodged. Yet exhibitions that irrevocably alter the view of a master come along. They offer the viewer an escape from the weight of a dominant narrative, and a chance to see things from a greater vantage point.
"Josef Albers in Mexico," organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and currently on view at the Heard Museum until Monday, May 27, is a show of subtlety and force. The exhibition presents paintings by Albers, the German-born artist famous for his work as a painter and theorist, alongside photographs and photo-collages he created during his travels to Mexico.
After fleeing 1930s Germany, taking refuge in North Carolina, and accepting a teaching position at Black Mountain College, Josef and his wife, fellow artist Anni Albers, traveled to Mexico more than a dozen times. Their keen interest in the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán, Chichén Itza, Monte Albán, and Mitla led the couple to meticulously document their travels and the sites they witnessed being uncovered. As the exhibition demonstrates, Albers’ fascination with the abstraction and architecture of ancient Mesoamerica “left an indelible mark on his own artistic production and methodology.”
Most museumgoers recognize Albers for his participation in the Bauhaus and his contributions to 20th-century minimalism, most notably through his Homage to the Square series. The artist’s connection to Mexico is not nearly so well-known, and this intimate dialogue between Mesoamerican ruins and the abstraction of a Bauhaus master was virtually unknown to museum audiences until now.
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In the context of the Heard and Phoenix, the connection between ancient Mesoamerica and Albers’ paintings becomes utterly natural. Phoenicians will know well the striking light of sun on stone visible in the photographs, as the deep shadows and high contrast of the desert are familiar. Abstraction suggests itself as the logical stylistic choice, as the ancient Mesoamerican structures capitalize on the natural elements to create sharp lines and impressive contrast. In turn, Albers’ response to the stark natural environment evokes desert qualities. The textured brushstrokes and hatch marks of his early paintings suggest stone and adobe walls, and the rich purples, reds, and oranges, as well as unflinching sky blues, embody the singular color palette of the desert.
Throughout the exhibition, one can almost see Albers’ thought process come to life as he renders these architecturally inspired structures in two dimensions. His paintings translate the experience of a body moving through a space to a the path of an eye traversing an image. As the exhibition progresses, his later paintings tend toward a more extreme degree of abstraction, as if pulled in more strongly by the force that the square exercised upon him throughout his life and career. But now, seen within the context of earlier works and the sites that inspired them, the squares appear as the culmination of decades’ worth of practice, architectural forms that slowly morphed into a conceptual form.
In both the photographs and paintings, the passage of time is almost musical. Architecture is as much about negative space and movement as the structures themselves, and Albers’ photographs render the sense of a bodily experience in black-and-white. Across the paintings, too, with a logical geometry that guides the gaze, the passage of time is quiet, but firmly marches on. Throughout "Josef Albers in Mexico," the artist and the curators remind the viewer that painting is not quite the two-dimensional medium it’s too often assumed to be.