A look inside the Box: Josef Albers’ “Formulation: Articulation”

Displays of the Josef Albers exhibition at the Stone Gallery. (Photo by Nicole Galioto/BU News Service)

By Nicole Galioto
Boston University News Service

Stationed in the Stone Gallery located on the first floor of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, Josef Albers’ “Formulation: Articulation” is currently on view until Dec. 12. 

Josef Albers was an American German artist who worked in Europe and the United States and was best known for his exploration of color theory and how the perception of color is relative and subjective. Albers taught at Bauhaus and at Black Mountain College before retiring from teaching in 1958, a few years before his book, “Interaction of Color,” was published. Albers died at the age of 88 in 1976 in New Haven, Connecticut.

The exhibition itself consists of silkscreen prints rather than paintings. Those familiar with Albers’ work will take immediate notice of Albers’ colorful square compositions, as well as a few black and white geometric compositions. 

Yutong Shi, graduate assistant at BU Art Galleries, said  the collection is “not just about reproducing his original artwork, but instead he was trying to explore more possibilities, some variations between color and form.”

Lissa Cramer, managing director at BU Art Galleries, said that in this exhibit, “we see a more finished product. In his earlier works you can see him experimenting and playing more.” 

Ateret Sultan-Reisler, who is also a graduate assistant at the galleries, said that the silkscreen process used in this later series has resulted in slight visual differences from Albers’ original painted “Homage to the Square” series, but she added that the two are similar.

She said, while looking at a work in the exhibition with yellow squares inside each other, “the [square] in the center is just a slightly different yellow and when it’s up against this other yellow [square] how does that make it look to us? It plays with our perception in that way.”

(Photo by Nicole Galioto/BU News Service)

Alongside the works reminiscent of Albers’ “Homage to the Square” series is a black and white series of three-dimensional geometric forms that Cramer said is the section visitors tend to gravitate toward. Sultan-Reisler said that interest might arise from Albers’ use of “two-dimensional shapes to make three-dimensional forms and I think people get interested because of that.”

In the alcove adjacent to Albers’ work, Steve Locke’s “Homage to the Auction Block” is formally similar to Albers’ squares and is informed by Albers’ work. Cramer said, “Albers seems to go for muted primary colors and Steve’s [work] tends to go toward brighter colors.”

Sultan-Reisler said that Locke “is trying to subvert the historical messages that we understand from Albers’ work. Locke centers his work on this shape of an auction block, which represents slavery in the Americas. He’s engaging with this idea that shapes aren’t neutral.”

“We see a work by Albers and him as this white male artist and we might think these simple geometric forms exist in a vacuum and they’re neutral. That idea is rooted in this version of art history where the way that certain stories were uplifted also meant that others were shoved under the rug,” Sultan-Reisler said.

Locke’s exhibit is now finished, but other artists’ work will take the space in the alcove. The next exhibit to join Albers, “Radical Return,” will open on Nov. 8 and will feature a graphic design exhibition. Shi said that the exhibition was in collaboration with Chinese and Chinese American artists.

“The Chinese character for ‘return’ is actually two squares, one in the other, so you can see a formal connection with Albers’ square paintings,” Shi said.

Shi said, “[the exhibition] shows how these artists’ practices are subverting or countering Albers’ work. So after you come back to the main exhibition space and take a look at Albers’ work again, you might find something new.”

Editor’s note, 11/10/21: A previous edition of this article stated that “Formulation: Articulation” was Albers’ last series before his death. Albers, in fact, continued to create works before his death in 1976. The line has been amended.

Furthermore, a paragraph implied Albers’ was not directly involved in the portfolio’s publication due to old age when, in fact, “Formulation: Articulation” was published under his direction at the time. This paragraph has been removed.

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