On Josef Albers

The following essays (1959–1964) were published in Donald Judd, Complete Writings, 1959–1975, the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975. They are reprinted here with permission from Judd Foundation.

Donald Judd writings cover


Josef Albers: The continued expansion of this lambent geometry is very impressive. One of the numerous Homage to the Square series, Luminant, elucidates the similar subtlety of the rest. This painting is the typical four circumjacent squares offset to the lower edge. The color of the central orange square, fairly intense and slightly red, glows and expands into the next, light-cadmium-orange square, which in turn, but with declining strength, influences a square somewhere between raw sienna and yellow ocher. An outer medium-gray square contrasts immensely with the warm ones and contains them. The unbounded color and the final disparity belie the apparent rigidity of the geometry and provide the central lyric and exultant ambiguity of the painting. Further because of the low position of the squares on the canvas the bands at the top, the bottom and the two sides vary which allows the complex development of a hierarchy of scale and a range of close colors and values. The proximity and the extent of a color change the scale of an area, the type of contrast and the color itself. The work is exceptionally intriguing and presents a conception of multiple distinctions within a single context, itself in turn manifold. Another painting of the series, In and Out which it is is viridian and gray, a handsome combination, but the two outer bands each contain both light and dark gray mitered at the corners which produces a recession and a frontality that wobbles, never becoming stable. Many of the colors are scraped slightly to expose the white ground; this adds a luminosity superior to that of the earlier works, as well as implying various textures. Most of the paintings are of the high caliber of Luminant and are astonishing in their variety, both in format and color. (Janis, Nov. 30–Dec. 26.)


Interaction of Color is primarily pedagogical. It gives a general idea of what is known about color, but it is not an encyclopedia of color information. If only the simple existence of the information is considered, there isn’t anything new. Most of it and more is in M. E. Chevreul’s famous and influential book, published in 1838, which was important to the Impressionists and then to Delaunay and Kupka. The book’s information is again important, though not through the original work, since it is hard to obtain, but through Albers and painting generally. The book was reprinted a number of times and should be again. preferably cheaply. In addition to Chevreul’s information and some that is generally current in painting, Albers briefly discusses and shows the color effects and sequences of the Bezold Effect, the Weber-Fechner Law, the Goethe Triangle, the Munsell and the Ostwald color systems and the automatic spectrophotometer.

There are three parts to the Interaction of Color, well-boxed, as they should be for the price. A hard-backed volume is called the text and a paper- backed one is the commentary. The commentary applies to eighty-one folders containing two hundred or so color studies. The text, which also deals specifically with the various phenomena, is concerned with color in art and with teaching color so that it is learned creatively and used that way.

The color studies, most of which are printed by silk screen and some by four-color separation and photo offset, are often spectacular and often entertaining. They are obviously the reason for the price of the book. At that price it is an institutional possession. It wouldn’t have helped much, but the six folders of leaf studies and a few of the thirteen folders of free studies, done by students, as most of the studies are—Albers did a few—could have been left out. In folder IV-I, Albers shows that one color can look like two colors, that a color can be enormously changed by the color around it: an olive-gray rectangle on a magenta ground looks considerably lighter than the same olive gray on a light-green ground. On the facing page an orangish-tan square on a cerulean field connects not to the identical tan square across from it on an orange field, but to the orange field itself. The tan on the orange appears darker than the tan on the cerulean. One page of folder VII-1 has two adjacent rectangles of lightened orange and lightened purple, each containing a bar of tan whose small difference seems to be explained by their different grounds; they might be identical. A tab along the edge conceals the real relation of the bars, shown adjacently. They are wildly divergent, considerably orange and purple themselves. Albers calls this group of studies color subtraction. Two different colors are made to seem the same or four colors are made to appear three. The study is incredible. VIII-1 shows an afterimage. Both pages of the folder are black. One side contains a large red circle and the other a matching white one. When you look at the white circle after staring at the red one, it flushes a light, intense cerulean blue. There are a lot of these studies, and many are more complicated than the ones just described. The studies show the color effects clearly and simply. Albers’ explanations are clear as well. Chevreul’s book shows how dense the subject can be, though necessarily so in that case. Albers’ approach is practical and sensible and free of cant and obscurities.

Albers says, with regard to one study, “We study this first, not as a surprising or entertaining illusion but to make eyes and mind aware of the wonders of color interaction; second, to learn to utilize color deception in creative color performance.” “The book Interaction of Color is a record of an experimental way of studying color and of teaching color.” The book makes, to put it simply, one unqualified point, that color is important in art. It does this very well. Of course the book is also showing a particular way, contemporary now, in which color is important. Most of the studies would have been only entertaining illusions a few decades ago. The plain fact of color in art, the specific use of these effects in art, which is contemporary, and Albers’ experimental way of teaching color are the real contributions of the book. Albers’ remarks are original, not about the simple existence of an effect, but about how it works in art. The experimental way is also original and is fine. Albers’ way of teaching has been and should be very useful. It is hardly irrelevant that he is an exceptional painter.

The beginning is an instance of Albers’ teaching. Albers wants to emphasize that “Color is the most relative medium in art.” A color can be made to look different. The class is shown examples of this. “Then the class is invited to produce similar effects but is not given reasons or favorable conditions. It starts, therefore, on a trial-and-error basis.” This is nice. The class could have been given an explanation, never become involved in the relativity of color and probably have forgotten it the next day. They would certainly have forgotten it when they began to paint.

The information taught to art students is even more relative than color. It is highly circumstantial and transitory. But at anyone time, specific knowledge of some kind is necessary. Usually, though, it is being formed at the same time that it is necessary. Techniques and information are vital is there is an artistic use for them and completely useless if there isn’t. Albers’ information is relevant right now. There is an increasing use of optical and color phenomena. However, as Albers must know, since he presents the knowledge generally and undogmatically, there is more to color right now than he shows, and color can be expected to be very different in twenty years or so. Albers is teaching what knows, most of which comes from painting. This is all anyone can do regard to technical knowledge. The method shows that Albers allows the rest. A discussion of color would be any more comprehensive or objective if it were by someone not a pain Albers’ particular view of color is dictated by a qualification to a harsh study in black and yellow: “Despite lack of an harmonious or pleasant appeal …” He goes on to say it is anyway. The Interaction of Color is best that can be done. It is just that it has all the Biblical possibilities, it is clear and has limits, of anatomy of the other subjects whose presence and perfection are supposed to art. The book should be used but that way.

APRIL 1963

Josef Albers: This is one of the best exhibitions of the season. The paintings are all of concentric, dropped squares. There are no mitered corners or other lesser schemes. High Spring has a central cerulean green square, a concentric band of a somewhat cool medium gray, another of a light, somewhat warm gray, and a wider, final band of apple green. The center is acute, intense and ambiguous. Albers uses several relationships simultaneously. The most frequent ones are: the balance of the inner and outer squares to flatness; a series of all of the squares and most often of two middle bands, progressing in either color or value or both at once either inward or outward (the adjustments to flatness and stability oppose those to recession and projection and instability); three different relationships of the same three or four colors—the intense narrow bands at the bottom, the moderate ones at the sides and the broad colors at the top, presented most nearly as they are; and Chevreul’s simultaneous contrast, one color altering another, as in the differences between the four sides. Excerpts from Albers’ book on color were reprinted recently in Art News. The text corresponds elegantly to his paintings. One painting is entitled Gobelin, which probably acknowledges M. E. Chevreul’s important book. This was published in 1839 as the solution to difficulties with the colors at the Gobelins. The information is all there. Neither Albers’ color, light nor application is rigid. These are lambent and exultant paintings. (Janis, Mar. 4–Mar. 30.)


Josef Albers: A large minority instead of a very large majority of these paintings are first-rate. The small majority are somewhat pat, a little thin, too harmonic or slightly too loose and painterly. It would be interesting to speculate on just how good Albers is, but this show isn’t the best opportunity. Perhaps someone will sponsor a retrospective. The Museum of Art will have a room in its optical show. Homage to the Square: At Sea B 1964 is very good. The central square is more or less zinc yellow. The square around it is a light-yellow-green gray. The outside square is light gray. A good deal of the light-yellow-green gray, that next to the yellow, seems the same as the final gray. Along that the other gray seems more yellow-green than it really is. At a distance it is hard to believe that the middle square is unvaried. There are several paintings involving yellow and gray, usually in the opposite sequence. Astonished 1962 has a light gray center, a light-yellow-green-gray middle square and an outer band of yellow. The central square sits very definitely and darkly in the surrounding yellow, much more darkly than it is. Light Reveille 1964 is a good, smaller four-square painting. The center is yellow deep lightened or grayed slightly; the next square is light yellow ocher; the third tan; and the outside band is orange. The first and last colors are strong. The paint is applied evenly. Several of the paintings are too harmonious, one, for example, which has brown, purple-gray, green- blue and green. Variations in the paint or some translucency seem irrelevant, as in the alizarin crimson of Deep Tune 1964. One reason Albers’ silk-screen prints are so good is the flat dry surface. Often the colors are arranged in a series, as in Open Land 1964, yellow medium, yellow deep grayed a bit, a dark yellow ocher and raw sienna. If there is an irregularity in the sequence it is all right, but sometimes, as here, it is predictable. (Janis, Sept. 28–Oct. 24.)