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In 1968, Josef Albers, the artist known for his explorations into colour – nesting squares within squares – pulled a feature out of the July 26 edition of Time magazine. “Miró!?!” he wrote in red pen over a column of death notices that faced the beginning of the three-page article about the Catalan artist. No one knows whether the scrawl represented amazed delight at seeing Miró celebrated, or disapproval: the two never met, in spite of both having completed impressive murals for the Walter Gropius-designed Harvard Graduate Center in 1959.
“I used to talk to Josef about lots of different artists,” says Nicholas Fox Weber, who was close to the German émigré until his death in 1976, and has been executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut since 1979. “He loved Mondrian; Kandinsky was really important. But we didn’t discuss Miró.”
Such selectivity was typical of the man: according to Weber, Albers – a dedicated educator at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale – could even be tricky about successful ex-students. “I can’t remember everyone who’s passed through,” he would say when asked, as he frequently was, about Robert Rauschenberg.
Now, however, Weber has – posthumously – introduced the German émigré who ended his days in Connecticut to the Catalan who abandoned the Spanish mainland in 1950, seeking greater isolation in Mallorca. He has put on an exhibition at the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Palma de Mallorca that juxtaposes the work of both men: at moments, the siting of an Albers next to a complementary Miró makes a cool “Homage to the Square” seem to bounce right out of its frame, while a colour will emerge from the Miró that hitherto went largely unnoticed. Albers’ red-penned rendition of Miró’s name appears on the back of the exhibition catalogue.
Weber’s relationship with Albers was one born entirely of chance. They met via an acquaintance whom Weber made at a New Hampshire tennis camp, when he was still an art history student at Columbia in New York in the late 1960s. Later, at Albers’ funeral in 1976, a quiet affair attended by just eight or nine people, collector Lee Eastman (Linda MacCartney’s father) suggested that Weber keep an eye on Albers’ wife Anni and the Albers archive. Eastman, Weber explains, was a keen Albers collector. “He had Josef’s work all up the stairs and de Kooning in the living room. I think that’s the only time I’ve seen those two artists’ work together.”
The Palma de Mallorca exhibition came about in a similarly spontaneous way when Weber was contacted a couple of years ago by Elvira Cámara Lopez, director of the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró. She had read Weber’s provocative biography of flamboyant Polish painter Balthus (it undid many Balthus myths, from his supposed aristocratic birth onwards), and she had been intrigued by a description of a portrait that Balthus did of Miró and his daughter. Their subsequent rendezvous ended with idea of bringing the subject of his foundation to meet the subject of hers.
It’s hard not to be charmed by the Miró campus, on a hill in the Cala Mayor quarter, looking down over the beautiful bay of Palma, although the view is tainted by the rampant development that raged through this part of the island in the 1970s. Opened in 1992, and designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, its interior has an almost ecclesiastically solemn air; light is filtered through concrete louvres and alabaster panels; steep ramps connect galleries in a continuous winding route; low windows pull the eye towards the pools and gardens outside – their calming presence helps to keep the bad buildings at a distance.
Next to the foundation is the studio, designed in 1959 by Miró’s great friend, Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert. The painter worked here until his death on Christmas Day 1983. The building is in effect a portrait of the artist, its sharply undulating roofline suggesting Miró’s own trademark birds. Inside, visitors can still see how Miró worked, the cane chair on which he sat (even if the framed pictures arranged across the floor amount to set-dressing rather than reality). Then they can carry on up the hill to the house Miró later acquired, a windowless hulk from the 17th century, where he drew on the walls and lived simply.
While this is clearly Miró’s world, Albers more than holds his own. “Albers is more theoretical and Miró is more visceral, but that’s what’s so exciting – to see these two huge individuals coincide,” says Weber, who has found pairings in both subject matter and form. One wall is hung with dozens of small squiggly sketches; even experts have found it impossible to work out which is the work of which artist. Both men were masters of line.
A never-before-displayed sketch called “Family” by Miró (showing two adults and a child) is placed next to two fragile Albers prints from 1934. An ex-boyfriend of Anni’s who went on to become a psychotherapist interpreted its black and white interlocking circles as a mother, father and four children, or Albers’ own family.
Weber is no stranger to provocative pairings. In 2005, he matched Albers and Morandi at the Museo Morandi in Bologna. “Morandi’s vessels and Albers’ squares are doing the same thing,” says Weber, referring to their sense of careful containment. “It was a very quiet sensibility, putting subtle greys next to subtle greys.” Then in 2008, he brought Albers to the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis (Matisse’s birthplace in northern France). “I saw them both as happy vibrant colourists from grim northern places,” says Weber, who regularly visits the Albers Museum in Josef’s home town of Bottrop. “Matisse wrote a lot about using colour to convey emotion, and I believe colour is a vehicle for emotion with Albers too and certainly is with Miró.” In Palma, there was a concern that Miró’s grandson, still very much involved with the artist’s estate, might disapprove. “But he looked at that wall of drawings and said, ‘It’s pure poetry’,” Cámara recalls.
While the assumption may be that the two are polar opposites – north and south, control over collision, psychological observation over the power of the subconscious – their shared concern with connections, materials, colour and womblike imagery prevails. Both were masters of many media and were driven by a desire for experimentation and resolution. Some of the examples here are ragged and frayed – a Miró held together with Sellotape; a hastily daubed Albers in messy pinks and pale browns. A bizarre collage by Albers made using remnants of glass sits on one wall, glinting in the light. “I would like to engrave something on glass, and design something on it in colour,” Miró once wrote. It’s one of few things he didn’t achieve.
“If I’d been doing, say, an Arshile Gorky show, the last two years wouldn’t have been half so much fun,” says Weber. “But I’ve been dealing with two of the art world’s greatest celebrators.” Who knows what would have happened if they really had met in person?
‘Josef Albers/Joan Miró:The Thrill of Seeing’, until Sept 21
Photographs: Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró; Corbis