Albers v. Rothko

This article was written December 9, 2016 in response to two shows up during that time.

The situation is such that the two great painters of squares, Mark Rothko and Josef Albers, are being shown at the same time only blocks away from each other in the Chelsea art district of New York. I can’t deny that only a few years earlier, I would have criticized both artists for reminding me of the professor from Art School Confidential who was “one of the first” to paint triangles. I could try to form an argument to justify where this bias came from, but the culprits would be the usual: “how I was raised” and “I experienced paintings through photography”.

Undeniably, your average working class American is justified in questioning the value of such minimal works of art. When so much of one’s life revolves around labor, it’s hard to respect something that looks like it took little to none. All the theory and criticism from New York elites does little to help the situation. It adds to the feeling that some sort of trick is being played on the rest of us.

I overcame my bias after confirming to myself that I could meet the standard of making art that requires skill and labor. I studied at an art school loosely modeled after the French Academy, drawing from casts and models, studying anatomy. After developing the necessary skill, I realized I was growing unexcited by the challenge of making “this” look like “that”.

The time I spent away from my studies was frequently used to go to museums and galleries. I did master copies at the Met of artists such as Vermeer. Eventually, after spending so much time in the more classical wings of the museum, I went over to the contemporary art section with its significantly smaller collection. For the first time, these works felt exciting, like turning the radio from the classical station to jazz.


Kanjuro Shibata XX


Kenneth Noland

It occurred to me that, as far as artists such as Rothko are concerned, I judge them with different standards than I judge, lets say, a zen Buddhist ink painting of a circle (an ensō). The zen painting, to me, is to be judged in terms of the gesture and of meditation. Zen. The western painting, however, is judged in terms of labor and skill. Skill, of course, refers to the ability to make something look real (what that means, exactly, is not as clear as one might first think, but in my case “real” meant “like a photograph”). Furthermore, I seemed okay with appreciating the simple beauty of clouds at sunset but not with the blurry squares of Rothko. It is obviously mistaken to judge natural phenomena by the standards of skill and labor.

I’m lucky to have gotten over this block before going to these two exhibitions. That two renown artists are so similar yet completely different invites a comparison. Interestingly, both exhibitions seemed to focus on similar themes: paintings within a certain range of color. Rothko’s dark paintings and Alber’s grey paintings. However, while Rothko’s work is supposed to impress some emotional weight upon the viewer, Albers is so calculating as to have written the color theory book, The Interaction of Color.

Albers’ exhibition, in a way, rewards the viewer who wants to know what type of labor goes into making such work. Some of his studies were presented along with finished paintings. What Albers would have thought of such curatorial decision aside, this is a great aide to learning artists. Such glimpses into process are always beneficial to the student.

IMG_4118-1Of course, the gallery literature for Albers’ work at David Zwiner contributes to that above mentioned feeling that some sort of trick is being played. At one point, I heard a man scoff, “right. What a joke,” after reading the words “changed the way human beings see form and color.” Such a grandiose assertion should be laughed at. Albers made no such contribution to the basic human experience. One does not need to assign such metaphysical implication to an artist’s work in order to appreciate its value. One can appreciate how Albers contributed greatly to the theorizing and teaching of color perception. One can also appreciate the playfulness with which he applied color theory, continually tackling the problems that interested him so much. In this exhibition, specifically, one can appreciate how he investigated such a narrow range of color. One thing the gallery literature did do right was to quote Albers’ expression of his aspiration to achieve “maximal effect through minimal means.” Insofar as viewers need some sort of help interpreting the work, this statement is all that is necessary.

Perhaps viewing the Albers exhibition is useful in preparation for viewing Rothko’s Dark Palette at Pace. While it might be difficult to connect to Alber’s work on an emotional level, it might help the doubting viewer appreciate the type of understanding that must be built up for one to become a powerful colorist, that doing something effective via minimal means requires an intimate understanding.

Of course, one is entitled to question if Rothko actually has this understanding or if his work is all substantiated on pretense. Few artists have been transformed into myths like the American abstract expressionist and it has become obligatory for art world elites to remind people of this fact. I can’t remember that last thing I read about Jackson Pollock that did not take the opportunity to point out his various character flaws. These men (it is also obligatory to remind people that abstract expressionism was a sausage party) represent so much that the contemporary educated elite wants to kill, most prominently the concept of the heroic loner genius artist.

As far as Rothko is specifically concerned, we are apparently supposed to have some sort of existential revelation standing in front of his paintings. I say this sarcastically because, like the literature on Albers, I do not believe such metaphysical implication need be assigned to the work in order for it to be appreciated. Unfortunately, all the conversation surrounding abstract expressionism has made it difficult for me to stand silently, with clear mind, in front of a Rothko. I hear the critic in my mind saying, “he painted large because he was a man and he was compensating, just like the rest of them”. I imagine the millionaire who wants to buy a Rothko just to have a Rothko, like I wanted to have a nice pair of Nikes in middle school.

It does not take much investigation into Rothko’s biography to begin to appreciate that, despite the hype surrounding his work, he was entirely sincere in his intentions. One famous example is his abandoning a high paying commission from the Four Seasons in Manhattan due to his lack of confidence that his work would be experienced as he intended in such an atmosphere. Thus I resolved to attempt to view Rothko’s work in his terms instead of in terms of labor or social criticism or the market. I took my notebook to record my impressions.

FB8A-620As the palette of this body of work is dark, one might easily associate it with such terms as “moody”. Perhaps doing so is warranted. The terms “somber” and “pensive” also apply. I, for one, am entirely biased as I have difficulty relating to paintings in terms of such “dark” emotion, (with the feeling of horror I derive form a Bacon serving as an exception). I will say that whatever I felt while looking at these works is difficult to put into terms. I felt enticed by the sense of mystery in some pieces. Others, such as No. 77/ No. 19 (Slate Blue and Brown on Plum), 1958 made me feel more unsettled. Of this one, I wrote that it “has teeth”. The fuzzy blue form feels as though it has an imposing personality. Of course, I could simply be projecting. Then again, these paintings invite the viewer to project.

It is more easy for me to relate to paintings on a playful, technical level. In this way, I have an obvious bias in favor of Albers. However, In experiencing this exhibition personally instead of via a computer monitor, it impressed me how much Rothko is a master of technique. The manner in which he applies paint can create a sense of weight that contradicts the impression given by the color. Many of the darkest colors are painted thick enough that they feel like floating masses instead of voids. This push/pull is exemplar of abstract expressionism’s innovation that, despite all criticism, has contributed so much to the practice. It is true that Rothko’s work, perhaps more than the other expressionists, must be experienced in person.

Despite my pitting Albers against Rothko, both share common legacies of contributing so much to the language of abstraction. Both share the confidence that color, divorced of subject matter, is worth investigating for its own potential to impress itself on a viewer’s perception. Perhaps it is still arguable, but I admit that both artists are worthy of their legacies after viewing these exhibitions.


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