I like Albers and Morandi—But Not Together

"Never Finished" David Zwirner, January 7—April 3, 2021

Morandi “Natura Morta” (1953)

…because they are so elegant and so tastefully presented that I keep imagining a living room in shades of ecru with earth-toned pillows.

The concept of the curator seems to be that these two painters are compatible: analogous colors, small sizes, centrally focused compositions and that they were both experimental outliers that made “quiet” paintings. Forcing them together in this way emphasizes those attributes at the expense of others more essential to the meaning of their work.

Albers “Study for Homage to the Square” (1973)

Albers designed a series of diminishing squares that evoke one point perspective, continuously leading the eye to hover around an implied vanishing point in the central square. That square becomes whatever you want it to be, a spiritual place if you like, simply a place to think, or a grounding set of geometries.

 

Albers “Homage to the Square” (1954)

Morandi “Natura Morta” 1959

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hung interspersed, the Albers’ focus our attention on the center of the Morandis, seriously cramping them. Morandi does not actually use geometric perspective at all, there is no vanishing point. His objects are either single or arranged so frontally and closely and their sizes so indeterminate that it does not come into play. There are no receding lines. The dimensionality of his objects is defined by highlights, shadows and occlusion: one object is in front of another because it hides it. Even when the objects are crammed into the center as in Still Life 1957, Morandi continually moves our eyes to circle between the massed figures, to extend with the horizontals and to see that the space around his objects is painted as intently as the objects themselves.

Albers”Homage to the Square [Entrez]” (1964)

It is that activation of the entire space of a Morandi that reduces the Albers. A Morandi can be seen from a distance and in extreme close-up. They made me move closer to the Albers which then look badly painted and, they aren’t really. Albers brushwork is meticulous, painstaking and self-effacing. The ideal viewing spot is at least six feet away and the painting should be taken in as a whole. They set up an abstract space more mental than physical and Albers himself said, “I prefer to see with closed eyes.”

Josef Albers “Homage to the Square” 1961

Albers tried other geometries, but they did not work as well, like this version painted in 1961–there is no spatial movement at all. What he realized is that if everything else was predetermined, the color was freed to show its power to affect the image—emotionally, spiritually and physically. The viewer is complicit in understanding they are seeing the same proportions and all perceptions of relative size and depth are controlled by color.  Didactic, yes, and meant to be so.

 

Morandi “Natura Morta” (1954)

The curator also posits that both painters limited their subjects, Albers to his imbedded squares and Morandi to his vessels amazingly often (lol) described as “humble.”
A very odd comparison, apples and oranges really. The combination of the two painters might be more accurately described as functioning as opposites; Albers pursuing an abstraction so pure and ephemeral that it can (should?) be seen with the eyes closed and Morandi presenting us with paintings so sensual and so un-memorizable in their complexity that they must be seen with the eyes open.

(I might also add somewhere in this essay that trying to understand the way Morandi uses color with any insights gleaned from the Albers is an exercise in pure futility.)

Then, idly, I started to wonder, “What would a Hoffmann / Morandi mashup look like?

 

Hans Hoffmann “Summer” (1965)

 

 

Morandi “Natura Morta” (1955)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

—CNQ

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