In 1946, while teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Josef Albers painted “Homage to the Square.” That was the first one; he made over a thousand of them — paintings, drawings, prints and even tapestries — over the course of his life. These homages consist of three or four squares nestled into each other, with each square painted a different color. Obsessively, some might even say passionately, Albers measured out the lines, filled in the colors, and then, for future posterity, wrote what colors and what varnishes he used on the backs of the paintings.
There’s a marvelous Albers painting, yellow and grey, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I like an Albers painting as much as the next person. I admire the obsession, the tireless journey he charted into the world of color day after day for thirty years. Imagine a life lived like that. But I don’t think I fully appreciated just what he was about — perhaps I still don’t but I’m trying — until I began to make my own prints, laying down flat areas of color one right next to the other. Things start to happen. Edges vibrate; moods change; excitement builds.
He represented a universe in those squares. One after another after another. And each one, limited in form and line, pulses. Here’s what he said: “Learn to see and to feel life, cultivate imagination, because there are still marvels in the world, because life is a mystery and always will be.”
And that’s pretty cool.