Art rarely thrives in a vacuum. It is by definition polyglot and in flux, buffeted by the movement of art objects, goods and people across borders and among cultures, and also by individual passion. This much, especially the passion part, is demonstrated by “Josef Albers in Mexico,” a quietly stunning exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum that contrasts Albers’s little-known photographs of the great Mesoamerican monuments of Mexico with his glowing abstract paintings.
The show grounds this German-born artist’s paintings in his Mexican travels between 1935 and 1967, clarifying his creative debt to the pre-Hispanic world. It reveals an artist from one culture being blown away by the achievements of another culture, and making work that might otherwise not have been possible without a change of scene.
The geometric grandeur and decorative reliefs of the pyramids, sanctuaries and building complexes of the Maya, Aztec, Zapotec and other civilizations enabled Albers (1888-1976) to reach maturity. Namely they thawed the rigorous color theory he had learned and taught at the Weimar Bauhaus, and also at Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., and Yale University, which he ultimately developed into a landmark 1963 book, “Interaction of Color.” The Mesoamerican influence culminated in Albers’s signature “Homage to the Square” paintings, those severely concentric yet pulsating arrangements of color, light and space he made from 1950 until his death, presaging Minimalism by more than a decade.
Albers made more than a dozen trips south of the border with his wife, the artist-weaver Anni Albers (1899-1994), also a former Bauhaus student and teacher. They visited and revisited sites like Mitla, Monte Albán, Tenayuca and Uxmal, some newly discovered, most under excavation. Camera ever at the ready, Josef took thousands of photographs.
Back home, he had some negatives enlarged into single images, and fashioned many tiny contact prints into photocollages that bespeak a slightly crazed obsession. But Albers never exhibited his photoworks and usually hedged questions about the influences behind the “Homage to the Square” series. Many of the photoworks here are being shown for the first time, which is gratifying, if belated.
In today’s parlance, Albers might be accused of “cultural appropriation,” a negative buzzword that presumes that culture can be owned and controlled, which it can’t. Passion and openness make opportunists of us all. But sources should be acknowledged. This exhibition, which has been organized by Lauren Hinkson, an associate curator at the Guggenheim, gives Albers’s development a transparency that he could have encouraged, but did not.
The Alberses were already deeply interested in pre-Hispanic art and architecture when they arrived in the United States from Berlin in 1933, shortly after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus. (Their exit visa was an invitation to teach at the avant-gardist Black Mountain, followed in 1950 by Josef’s appointment to Yale.) They became keen collectors of things Mesoamerican, eventually giving some 1,400 small stone and clay figurines, ceramic vessels and Andean textile fragments to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. (Their collecting was examined in “Small-Great Objects: Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas” at the Yale University Art Gallery earlier this year.)
The values apparent in Mesoamerican objects and structures dovetailed with the Alberses’ most cherished Bauhaus principles, especially economy of means, truth to materials and the pursuit of variation within specific boundaries. Limits were inherent in Anni’s weaving and were imposed by Josef’s nesting squares. Furthermore, he began working exclusively with colors straight from the tube — smoothed out with a palette knife to the rough side of Masonite, sometimes exploiting the effects of the white gesso ground and canvas-like texture. And yet these strictures seem to have freed him to revel in the full spectrum: hot pinks, crimsons and violets, browns, greens and black, and their impact on one another.
Installed to trace the couple’s travels to different pre-Hispanic sites, “Josef Albers in Mexico” has an energetic syncopation generated by the paintings’ singing colors, which alternate with the silvery sepia of the photographs. The paintings range from rarely-seen fledgling works from 1935-40 to a final sweep of seven small “Homage to the Square” paintings from the 1960s and ’70s in shades of red, orange and yellow. Each has its own inner light, scale and spatial rhythm; together they attest to the instability of color and perception.
In his photographs Albers is always on the move. He constantly pulls back to show the lay of the land and the architecture on it. “I once again have phenomenal respect for the spaces between the pyramids,” he wrote to a friend upon returning to Monte Albán in 1936.
We see close-ups of the pyramids’ steep stairs and intersecting planes — especially in tightly framed shots at Tenayuca — that seem to have initially inspired a pursuit of diagonal lines and planes. Two Tenayuca oil studies from around 1938 might be 3-D renderings of a stark modernist house. A drawing of the same motif flattens it into a single angled line spiraling in on itself. The common source is seen in a nearby photograph: a spectacular coiled serpent sculpture at Tenayuca.
Albers’s camera captured extremes of light and shadow and the thickly framed doorways in both pre-Hispanic structures and vernacular adobe dwellings. All of this figures prominently in eight forthrightly titled “Variant/Adobe” paintings from the late 1940s — the core of the show. Here, horizontal building-like compositions feature pairs of apertures that imply mysterious interiors. The layering of color creates a prismatic, almost hallucinatory wavering of form. Albers is about to segue to the “Homage of the Square” paintings in these works, but their visionary effect also links him to early American modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Burchfield and Arthur Dove.
Filtered through his photographs, Mesoamerican architecture showed Albers the accordion-like nature of pictorial space: it could be rendered as volumetric, flat and something in between at the same time. You see it in an ink drawing at the start of the show, “Study for Sanctuary” (1941-42), which presents three black rectangles that are pushed in and then out by the concentric lines radiating around them, which also suggest stairs and elaborate doorframes.Frank Stella’s black-stripe paintings or the early reliefs of Donald Judd come to mind.
Such spatial mutability is more refined in the “Homage to the Square” paintings, which often read simultaneously as receding, like a sunken walled court; protruding, like a flat-topped pyramid; and holding steady in a single slightly vibrating plane — a temple gate to another world.
These paintings are among the pinnacles of pure abstraction — if you believe in pure abstraction. But this beautiful exhibition may destabilize that faith. All art is reality-based, derived in part from looking long and hard at whatever chooses you. In Albers case, “Homage to Mexico” might have been a more accurate title.
Josef Albers in Mexico
Through Feb. 18 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Manhattan; 212-423-3500, guggenheim.org.
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