Saturday, May 6, 2017

albers einstein

Figure 1: Monument to Change as it Changes
Piano teachers know the antidote to insipid interpretation: call for a change of color. Monochromatic treatments of harmonic transitions have a flattening effect, while inflection lifts latent pitches from the page. This applies on canvas as well as in concert, according to Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color, wherein “the relationality of the former [interaction]” depends upon the “relativity of the latter [color].”¹ In addition to characterizing color’s interactive infinitude, Albers demonstrates that tone and color operate along axes of time and space, respectively. Peter Wegner’s Monument to Change as it Changes (Figure 1), however, eludes this essential distinction by fusing both variables into spacetime.

Throughout Interaction of Color, Albers employs myriad musical metaphors. One such example neatly establishes the essentiality of contextual consideration: “In musical composition, so long as we hear merely single tones, we do not hear music. Hearing music depends on the recognition of the in-between of the tones, of their placing and of their spacing.”² Likewise, isolated colors convey little visual information, however richly conceptual their presentation. Words, chemical elements, human beings—all such specimens seek to bond with others in pursuit of meaning. Albers continues the musical metaphor, elaborating upon “placing and spacing”: “The tune of ‘Good morning to you’ consists of 4 tones. It can be sung in a high soprano, a low basso, and in all in-between voices, as well as on many levels and in many keys… In all possible ways of performance, this melody will keep its character and be recognized instantly. Why? The intervals of the four tones, that is, their acoustical constellation (again comparable with a topographic relationship), remains the same. Although it is not common practice, one can also speak of intervals between colors. Colors and hues are defined, as are tones in music, by wavelength.”³ For example, complementary colors span the widest interval. Information lives in the distances between endpoints, rather than in the colors themselves. Such qualities enable the swift transposition of chords, as well as translation and transformation of graphs (thus the comparison with a topographical relationship). Despite such shifts, relationships remain intact, and retain the construction’s original “character.” Such a de-emphasis of the wavelength itself speaks to Albers’s focus on the interaction, rather than the physical properties, of color.

Figure 2: Homage to the Square: Lone Light
Following this distinction, Albers dismantles the ongoing comparison between tone and color, disclosing that “the metaphor misleads because basic conditions of these media result in different behavior.”⁴ First, Albers addresses music’s dependence on time: “Tones appear placed and directed in the time from before to now to later. Their juxtaposition in a musical composition is perceived within a prescribed sequence only. Vertically, so to say, one tone, or several simultaneously, sound for a varying but restricted length of time. Horizontally, the tones follow each other...only in one direction—forward. Tones heard earlier fade, and those farther back disappear, vanish. We do not hear them backward.”⁵ Music, then, depends entirely upon the progression of time; is an essential variable in its formulation. The unidirectionality of time’s arrow ensures music’s ephemerality, despite recording as a mechanical means of reproduction. In contrast, colors “appear connected predominantly in space. Therefore, as constellations they can be seen in any direction and at any speed. And as they remain, we can return to them repeatedly and in many ways.”⁴ The formula for color, then, rests upon variables xy, and z, all of which exist within the confines of three dimensions, and independently of the fourth: t. Constellations of color, then, arise from manipulations of space. Albers thus summarizes such thoughts: “This remaining and not remaining, or vanishing and not vanishing, shows only one essential difference between between the fields of tone and color.”⁴ Arrays of visual and aural possibility propagate endlessly, but orthogonally. Sound and light waves, crossing without constructing (or cancelling), interfere only in the imagination. According to Albers, the “field of color” does not vanish, despite time’s negligible efforts to fade, tarnish, or touch it. (Though to dust all return, art does so rather imperceptibly). Time, in fact, works to color’s advantage: while performers have a mere instant to produce the desired tone, visual artists may pause between brushstrokes, perfecting their product more peacefully. Space affects tone more significantly than time does color, as sound waves propagate through air and bump into objects, turning back the way they came for better (resonance) or for worse (audio feedback). Tones, therefore, are slaves to both time and space. Though endless, such “essential differences” between the interactions of color and of tones may be reduced to functions of x, y, z, and t.

When Peter Wegner constructed his Monument to Change as it Changes (Figure 1) in 2011, fields of tone and color had long collapsed and into a single coordinate system, as exemplified by video art. Having taken Albers’s “Color” course as an undergraduate, Wegner also appreciates visual relativity: “Because color is contextual, you can create a rich palette simply by varying the rhythm of a few different shades. Six sheets of this color followed by ten sheets of that. Different people would tell me a given paper installation had nineteen colors, or eleven or thirty, and in a sense, each was correct.”⁶ Varying numbers of colored sheets induces rhythm (though of a stop motion, illusory variety), considered by Wegner a critical component of color creation. In Monument to Change as it Changes, however, colored sheets are at the mercy of truly rhythmic flip-digit modules, the technology behind European train station arrival/departure boards. This time-dependent technique enables Wegner to “bend color the way Coltrane bends a note,”⁶ fusing both color and motion into perpetually-evolving contexts. 

The formal parallels between Albers’s and Wegner’s works enable further interaction between color and time. In an essay entitled “The Artist as Alchemist,” Nicholas Fox Weber observes that Albers “found multitude and stability in a few forms.” Albers’s nested squares, for instance, corralled color combinations both careening and calm (Figure 2). This particular Homage to the Square, evocative of egg, derives its architectural soundness from the perspective-preserving alignment of corners. According to Tate Modern curator Achim Borchardt-Hume, Albers likely selected squares for their abstract accessibility: “[Homage to the Square]’s primary concern was with the visceral nature of color perception. Yet, it is telling that the series’ title, rather than alluding to color, references the dominant shape; the word Homage suggesting Albers’s reverence for the square’s formal authority free from any representational associations.” Thus, the ubiquitous and therefore unfettered square best facilitates “visceral” detection of color interaction; representational forms would enforce a more limited reading of reality. Wegner favors the similarly-facilitative faculties of grids, which he calls “a distribution of cells. The distribution is universal. It’s how bodies and buildings and terrorists organize themselves. A painting or sculpture that borrows this form is just one more instance of the perpetual grid.”ٰ¹ Just as pixels codify information-dense imagery, squares and grids simplify chaos into constituent components. Grids, with their repeating rectangles, accomplish this in an especially meditative manner: in Albers’s early work Glitterbild (Figure 3), tinted glass nestles neatly into wire cells, while further cell-divisions evoke fractals. Wegner’s Monument to Change as it Changes also showcases the grid’s rationalizing rhythm, sectioning continuous colors just as measures mark music. 

Figure 3: Glitterbild
Grids create considerations of quantity. Albers muses that “although quantity and quality are considered disparate, in art and music they appear closely related. We may even hear, ‘Quantity is a quality,’ because here quantity not only designates amounts, as of weight or number, but also is a means of underlining, of pronouncement, and a means of equilibrium, of balance.”¹¹ For example, considerations of equilibrium may direct Albers’s placement of warm and cool colors throughout Glitterbild, while considerations of pronouncement determine his proportioning of Homage to the Square. The acts of placing and proportioning both require quantitative calculation and qualitative consideration. Wegner’s 3-ton, 2,048-flip module Monument certainly posed technical challenges in addition to its aesthetic puzzles. Albers continues: “The two basic quantity questions, how much and how often, distinguish two kinds of quantity: one of size (extension in area) and one of recurrence (extension in number). Both measurements… establish weight in space—and weight in time.”¹¹ Size obviously corresponds to “weight in space”: weight is a function of gravity, which increases proportionately with mass. By linking “recurrence” to “weight in time,” Albers suggests that repetition of two- or three-dimensional objects throughout space simulates the passage of time, possibly because one’s perception evolves as his or her eyes travel over a pattern. With 2,048 recurrences of the same form, Wegner’s Monument to Change as it Changes convincingly establishes weight in time; even in photographs, the colored cells possess the graduality of storyboards.

Figure 1 (detail)
In Interaction of Color, Albers refrains from characterizing color without context. If color is truly “the most relative medium in art,”¹³ how may one ascertain the attributes of a single shade? Synesthetically, perhaps. Critic Frederick Horowitz whimsically observes that “in Albers’s metaphorical world, free studies became orchestral sounds, cooking ingredients, flavors, geographical locations, actors in performances. Colors noticed other colors, dominated other colors, formed dictatorships and democracies… some [colors] were children who reflected the qualities of the parents,”¹ confirmed by the Homage[s] to the Square unambiguously titled Lone Light, Autumn Scent/Smell, and Advancing Spring. Note, however, that the aforementioned “[sounds, ingredients, flavors, locations, and actors]” remain particles eager to engage with others; the “dictatorships and democracies” depend upon constituents; and “children” inherit the traits of their parents—truly, colors resonate only in combination. Horowitz ascribes these comparisons to Albers’s familiarity with “Goethe’s ascription of character to colors in the Farbenlehre. Goethe, for example, saw ‘vivacity and nobility’ in yellow, ‘a strong feeling of warmth and joy’ in orange, and ‘a feeling of cold’ in blue.”¹ While most agree upon the orangeness of tangerines and other concrete objects, a color’s abstract associations vary. Thus, “Albers rarely talked about the character of color in the abstract. As a color could have one character in one place and a very different character in another, each ‘performance’ would necessarily stimulate different reactions in the observer.”¹ Both blood and certain berries absorb about the same amount of light; depending on context, the same hue elicits a spectrum of reactions. As Monument to Change as it Changes cycles through its eight hours of programmed choreography, changing context too quickly for conceptualization, the work preserves the purity of color in motion. Prismatic lenses, after all, demonstrate that all wavelengths sum to white light.

Throughout Interaction of Color, Albers “[looks] at the world with a scientist’s rigor to find… a language commensurate with his vision.”¹ Should this suggest physics envy, Albers insists that “just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical—neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side—so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color. This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of music, or of art.”¹ Why, then, did Albers bother to transcribe color’s conversations, then prescribe them to his art students? In “grasping the action and interaction of color as registered in our minds,” he answers, “we practice first and mainly a study of ourselves. Thus, we replace… retrospection [art historical and theoretical studies] with introspection… This proclaims creative action ahead of retrospective reaction."¹ While such a statement seems to supplant art historical inquiry with the psychological (not physical, as originally suspected) variety, this is not the case. Rather, Albers articulates an additional mystery to be solved before (for the previously untrained), alongside, or after historicization: the artistic history of oneself, arising from momently interactions with color. Indeed, Weber wrote that “[Albers] wanted [his] art to be immediate and inclusive, intelligible without any art-historical knowledge or academic education. Above all, [he] wanted it to be of its time.”¹⁹ Albers’s monumental text on color features in the etymology of Wegner’s Monument to Change as it Changes, which—for its relative contemporaneity—commemorates the complexity of our time. Throughout the time I spent studying economics in the building opposite Monument to Change as it Changes, I saw fluctuating market data in its cells, while other observers fathomed its hypnotic harmonies according to their own experience—such is the beauty of abstraction, more real to Albers than nature. The monument composed of color spins through spacetime, changing {you} with every interaction.

Figure 1. Peter Wegner, Monument to Change as it Changes
2,084 flip digit modules, each with 80 colors screen printed onto polycarbonate, steel, software, 108 × 384 × 3 in., 8 hrs of programming, 2011. (Consulting architect: Matt Flynn) Permanently installed at Stanford University.

Figure 2. Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Lone Light, 1962
oil on masonite; 18 × 18 in. (45.7 × 45.7 cm)
Figure 3. Josef Albers, Gitterbild (Grid Mounted), ca. 1921
glass, metal, and wire; 123⁄4 × 113⁄8 in. (32.4 × 28.9 cm)
¹Nicholas Fox Weber, the artist as alchemist to Josef Albers: A Retrospective, comp. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1988), 99.
²Josef Albers, Interaction of Color: New Complete Edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963), 5.
³Albers, Interaction of Color, 32.
⁴Albers, Interaction of Color, 37.
⁵Albers, Interaction of Color, 37.
⁶Peter Wegner, "10 Questions for Peter Wegner," interview by Cynthia Houng, KQED Arts.
⁷Nicholas Fox Weber, the artist as alchemist to Josef Albers: A Retrospective, comp. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1988), 40.
ٰ¹⁰Peter Wegner, P,E,T,E,R,W,E,G,N,E,R, (n.p.: Griffin Editions, 2007).
¹¹Albers, Interaction of Color, 40-41.
¹³Albers, Interaction of Color, 1.
¹⁴Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz, Josef Albers: To Open Eyes (n.p.: Phaidon, 2009), 32.
¹⁵Horowitz and Danilowitz, Josef Albers, 32.
¹⁶Albers, Interaction of Color, 2.
¹⁷Albers, Interaction of Color, 47-49.
¹⁸Weber, the artist as alchemist, 74.
¹⁹Achim Borchardt-Hume, ed., Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 78.

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