Minimal Means, Maximum Effect
Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect is the first retrospective in Spain devoted to Josef Albers (1888–1976). Comprising more than one hundred works of art in addition to furniture, objects, photographs, and a range of documentary material, the exhibition has been devised and developed over the last years in close collaboration with The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation (Bethany, Connecticut).
Notwithstanding its retrospective character, the exhibition is not structured as a simple chronological survey of the artist's work, although this would in itself be enormously enriching and instructive. Rather, it presents the work of Josef Albers as a project equally characterized by its coherence and its search for simplicity, its productive use of deliberately limited means and resources, its respect for manual labor and its emphasis on experimentation with color, taking material shape in a body of work with a marked poetic and spiritual content. Albers' output is decidedly the result of a judicious administration of artistic resources. In its totality his oeuvre is the consequence of a true "economy of form.
With the exception of his earliest creations, which deploy an Expressionist idiom typical of early 20th-century Germany, the work of Josef Albers was completely governed by an economy of means that constitutes the guiding thread of his artistic practice. One of the artist's first texts, published in 1928 with the title "Werklicher Formunterricht," opens with the following words: "Ours is an economically oriented age," and goes on: "In earlier times, world-view was more important". Nonetheless, the idea of economics as employed by Albers is not that of the exchange of goods, in other words it is not the limited market economy. The term has a more profound, universal meaning: it is the economics of the exchanges between human beings and between them and the objects of the world.
From this broader viewpoint, the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue also explore Albers' working process and his reflection about teaching, his theoretical and practical activities, given that in this area too he was a remarkable figure: a student and later a professor at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, and a teacher at Black Mountain College and finally at Yale University, in a way comparable to few other artists Albers' life was closely linked to the two most advanced experiments in art teaching in the 20th century. The exhibition aims to emulate his pronounced pedagogical vocation and thus includes teaching material and exercises by his students at the Bauhaus and at Yale, most notably those pertaining to his final years at Yale, in the form of the student works that Albers would use to structure his celebrated text Interaction of Color
* * *
With regard to his activities as a writer on art and educational theory and as a teacher and poet, the exhibition catalogue includes an extensive documentary section with 57 texts by Albers, 26 of them previously unpublished. In addition, it brings together 14 accounts of him by colleagues, students, art historians, essayists and writers, 4 of which are published here in English for the first time. The texts by Albers himself reveal how the uniquely economical approach that determined his artistic creation also prevailed in his theoretical reflections and in his ideas on teaching and the practice of art and design. The reader will appreciate that in the texts written by Albers between 1924 and 1966 the same, or very similar, ideas and deep-rooted convictions constantly reappear, tried and tested against his vision of the world and his experience of life. This is not, however, mere repetition or recycling, but rather an authentic "economy of distribution." In his texts, Albers made intelligent use of his ideas, "investing" them in fields as different as artistic creation, historical and contemporary consciousness, typography, art teaching, abstract art, color, design, architecture and the meaning of existence. Even the most dispassionate reading of these texts will reveal that the investment Albers made in reflecting on the most theoretical and the most practical issues throughout the course of his life was not only paid back in full but continues to offer intellectual dividends to this day.
* * *
Nonetheless, this profit is no more than a pale reflection of the one yielded by Albers' works. In them, the "distributive" economy evident in his texts becomes rather an economy based on an exponential multiplication of esthetic value. It is perhaps here that Albers can be considered a paradigmatic figure within modern and contemporary art, given that, in a way, all modern art from the early decades of the 20th century (or even from Impressionism) onwards can be explained as a process of economy of form, or better said, of the "economization" of forms.
If the prevailing trend in modern art has been abstraction, then its most important resource has been subtraction, destruction or limitation. Abstraction, the principal basis for 20th-century art – and much more powerful and widespread than the sporadic realist movements – is nothing other than an economic device to contain and reduce the "expenses" inherited by art from its long tradition: the schools, the imitative, the manual, the pictorial, the figurative, the expressive, the historical, the narrative, the literary, the significant, the mimetic, the authorial, the representational, the material, the sight-based and even, from Duchamp onwards, the "artistic." The economy made explicit by Albers is symptomatic of a state that affects all modern artists alike, only in the case of Albers it is the conscious driving force behind his work. It is what we might term the hidden economic law of contemporary art, the origins of which lie in modern esthetic consciousness, subsequently refined by the corrective imposed on modern art by certain 20th-century Esthetics and Poetics including, for example, that of the Bauhaus.
* * *
The traditional definition of economics as an activity consisting of "the administration of limited resources with potentially different uses" could certainly be applied almost fully to Josef Albers' artistic activity, were it not for the fact that the resources of which he and all artists make use are not at all limited. It is precisely because the resources of art are potentially limitless that the possibility of alternative uses is similarly so. Thus all artists are obliged to continually engage in the essential act of any economy: that of choosing between what is valuable and what is not. This comes about through the choices and decisions of that productive economy, which moves between a potential abundance of possibilities and an actual, unavoidable limitation imposed on their realization by the very materiality (and "originality") of the works of art. This is the economics of the art supply, in which each artist gambles with the significance and visibility of his work in a second economy that is complementary to that of the production of art: that of demand, which is exercised by the desire for the esthetic consumption of works of art. The latter also has different rules to those of the market economy, given that in contrast to mere consumer goods, certain notably material goods (works of art) are not used up nor depleted, but rather "consumed" through the most elevated form of consumption: contemplation.
According to Albers, art thus brings about the miracle of distributing material possessions without reducing them but in fact multiplying them. Art, like the Gospel episode, would thus bring about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (here standing for material possessions). The only difference is that the starting point is not a few loaves and fishes that multiply in order to feed a crowd, but rather the opposite: thousands of possible forms of loaves and fishes which each artist rigorously reduces to just a few, but which almost miraculously end up feeding many. A famed coiner of aphorisms and perceptive phrases, Albers often repeated that among his aims in art and in life was that of achieving the "maximum effect" through "minimal means." Deeply interested in mastering crafts and manual skills from his childhood, for him art was a perfectly balanced equation between effort and effect. In a reflexive manner he applied this austere sense of artistic practice to his theoretical essays, educational texts, teaching, design of furniture and objects, typography, photography and of course, painting.
The present exhibition has also been guided by that approach. The rigorous but concise selection of works reflects both the homogeneous evolution and continuity of Albers' convictions, vision and art, from his early years as a schoolteacher in his native Westphalia to his final years at Yale. In addition to his early figurative drawings, in which the effectiveness of the "economical" lines is already notable, the show includes works in stained glass or Glasmalerei (glass paintings, as Albers termed them), furniture and objects designed during the Bauhaus period, as well as graphic work and paintings from the artist's years in North America, first at Black Mountain College then at Yale. The selection of paintings is particularly important and encompasses the main series on which Albers worked: Variant/Adobe, Structural Constellations, and the celebrated Homage to the Square. The latter was created in the United States during the last decades of Albers' life and reveals the pared-down syntax of an artist dedicated to experimenting with the interaction of the innumerable gradations of the color spectrum.