One and One is Four: The Bauhaus Photocollages of Josef Albers @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 black and white photocollages, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints mounted to board, made in 1929/1932.  The works are sized roughly 12×16 (or reverse) and are unique. The show was curated by Sarah Hermanson Meister. A catalog of the exhibit was recently been published by the museum (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Along with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series belongs on the short list of masterworks of art that find their roots in the sophisticated investigation of theme and variation. In the seemingly simple arrangements of telescoping stacks of squares, Albers found a nearly infinite variety of complex spatial and color relationships to explore. Subtle alterations of alignment and progression generated wholesale changes in perception, and repetition and seriality (especially in the mediums of drawing and printmaking) extended his experiments (and their echoes) even further. Few artistic projects from any historical period have delivered so much conceptual richness within an underlying framework of such economy.

Albers started making his pictures of squares in 1950, and this exhibit takes us back two decades earlier, to the late 1920s/early 1930s when he was a teacher at the Bauhaus in Dessau. The works on view here bring together two mainstays of the educational curriculum the Bauhaus – the mechanistic nature of photography and the physical hand-crafting of the collage. But in the larger sweep of Albers’ artistic career, these photocollages haven’t been studied with the same intensity as works from other periods in his life, and given that the few examples of this genre are predominantly held by the Albers estate itself, they had largely been overlooked until recently. But a new acquisition of 10 of these photocollages by MoMA kicked off a new round of scholarly attention, and based on that work, we can now slot the photocollages into the larger arc of Albers’ history with more authority. Simply put, this show is a gap filler.

Like has later work with squares, Albers’ photocollages severely limit the available compositional variables. Each is presented on a rectangular, cream-colored board of the same size, and is made up of gelatin silver prints affixed to that board. Aside from a laughing portrait of Bruno and Schifra Canavesi which consists of a single image, the simplest of the works use two pictures to create a visual dialogue. For the most part, these works explore a nuanced change in perspective, frequently leveraging a short burst of elapsed time between the frames. There is an immediate sense of being behind the camera with Albers, as he looked down at the lines of winter train tracks, took in the geometries of the interior girders of the Eiffel Tower, and watched the frothy waves at Biarritz. Other pairings seem to be more deliberate in their attention to graphic design, with the forms of a hotel staircase in Geneva aligned into a high contrast zig zag that jumps across the gutter between the two prints and the winter scenes from his widow that look like a side-by-side positive/negative inversion but are actually just differences in snow cover.

Many of the collages use portraits of friends and colleagues as their subject, and these works play with an almost Cubist approach to simultaneous multiple perspectives. A two image work reorients El Lissitzky, turning from the prominence of his forehead to a side view of his profile while also changing the image size inside the fixed parameters of the collage. Paul Klee is a sitter on multiple occasions and Albers seems to build further complexity into each iteration. A series of 3 images of Klee smoking rotates the camera just slightly, the puffs of smoke interrupting our view of the similar sized portraits. Albers then uses a set of 6 images of Klee to create a jittering telescope effect, where the cropping gets tighter in each successive frame, the heads repeated in sequence and aligned into two layers. And a third collage plays with large and small, setting a single large portrait of Klee against a dense array of 21 smaller images in strips, bridging to an almost cinematic repetition of scenes. These ideas are then reworked again in dense gatherings of multi-sized images of Marli Heimann, Walter Gropius, and Oskar Schlemmer, where faces turn and turn again in stuttering repetitions, with shadows, passing time, and changing expressions leading to aggregate portraits that have a roundness and multi-dimensionality not found in a single image. Each work feels like a careful study of spatial relationships and an examination of the robustness of seriality.

The one outlier in this show is Albers’ collage of a bullfight in San Sebastian. This work is in many ways the most literal, in that it effectively reconstructs the space of the stadium, including the parade of matadors on the central field and the stands that encircle it. Separate images of the crowds and cars are pasted together edge to edge, creating a multi-perspective panoramic view of the setting. Here we can see Albers testing the limits of photographic depth and using discrete images to build visual structures with more complexity, perhaps reacting to some of the photocollage ideas percolating around from other sources at that time.

As stand alone artworks, not all of these collages rise to the level of durable genius, especially when judged against the entre history of photocollage since the invention of the medium. But as context for what would come later in Albers’ own career, they undeniably offer the seeds of powerful ideas that would more become more refined in subsequent years. Many of the collages feel a bit like stepping stones or intermediate sketches on the way to somewhere else, and we know with the benefit of hindsight that Albers didn’t ultimately use photography as a primary form of expression. That fact leaves these works as intriguing but secondary realizations of artistic thoughts in flux, primarily exciting for the hints of the future to which they obliquely allude.

Collector’s POV: This is a museum exhibition, so there are of course no posted prices. Albers’ lesser known photographic work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the only option for those collectors interested in following up. The Albers Foundation is represented by David Zwirner (here).

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