When Bernard Shaw grumbled that “he who can, does; he who cannot, teaches”, he was being manifestly unfair, at least to art teachers. Most able artists with ideas at variance with their time have been teachers as a straight alternative to starvation. Josef Albers, the subject of a short-running exhibition in London’s Waddington Galleries, was certainly very talented and very advanced; he was also a lifelong teacher. Yet he does not quite fit the stereotype. Born in 1888 in Bottrop, close to Germany’s industrial heartland of the Ruhr, his working-class parents aimed him at school teaching from childhood, in a situation not unlike that of his near-contemporary growing up in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, D.H. Lawrence. For both men, teacher-training was the bright boy’s prime route out of waged labour and into a profession. For Albers it led him ultimately to becoming one of the great pedagogues of modernism.

Teaching children occupied Albers until 1919, and he did not take up art full-time until he was over 30, studying first in Munich and then at Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus in Weimar, famous as one of the seedbeds of European modernism. But to teach was by now a part of Albers’s nature. He quickly became a Bauhaus master and, indeed, a leading figure in dragging the school away from expressionism and towards the philosophy that would make its name a cultural byword – functional minimalism, an art committed to architecture. At this time he specialised in working with coloured glass and, later, in typography.

The Waddington’s select exhibition celebrates two contrasting aspects of Albers’s career, which lay on either side of his time at the Bauhaus: a dozen works on paper from his student days, and 25 of the great “Homage to the Square” paintings that occupied Albers’s creative time for his last quarter-century.

The drawings are nude studies, a few portraits in pencil or ink and a single outdoor study of dray horses. I particularly liked a woman’s head looking down, in which some of the detail is made by hair-fine marks like surgical stitches in the skin. Another arresting piece is a Japanese-like nude comprising a dozen surprisingly sensual brush strokes. Life drawing was a discipline that Albers would refuse to sanction in his professorial maturity in America. “I don’t want to waste time and money teaching them in front of naked girls to draw,” he growled Germanically. Yet these drawings, though hardly masterpieces, prove that Albers himself did not entirely waste his time in the life studio. He himself must have agreed, since he carefully preserved a large cache of this youthful work.

If the drawings are conventional student output, the paintings are a very different matter. After the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, and with a sure instinct for being in the right place at the right time, Albers had emigrated to America, accepting a job at John Andrew Rice’s newly founded and daringly progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where among his colleagues he found John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller. In 1949 he moved on to Yale University as head of design and here he began the vast “Homage to the Square” series, each of the paintings unique in colour and varying from time to time in their arrangement, yet all repetitions of the same fundamental design.

In any intensity scale of obsessional art, these paintings would far outrank Rembrandt’s self-portraits, or even Bonnard’s preoccupation with his wife Berthe. Between 1950 and Albers’s death in 1976, there were more than a thousand Homages to the Square. The approach was strictly scientific, as with a laboratory experiment. Working on primed hardboard (the rough side) measuring up to 40 by 40 inches, Albers placed three or sometimes four squares of different monochrome colours in a standardised nesting arrangement. They are always squarely placed along a centre line, with the edges parallel and corners aligned, though they are never concentric. There are a few paintings for which Albers tried out an aluminium support (one of them is in this exhibition) but he otherwise used the same brand-name hardboard – Masonite – and did not mix colours, but palette-knifed proprietary pigments straight from the tube. He worked flat on a table, under artificial light that varied along a known and controllable scale from “warm” to “cool”.
Precise details of the media employed were handwritten on the back of the board.

On the face of it, the simplicity, uniformity and vast extent of the Square series ought to make Albers one of the most easily faked of all major artists. But forgers beware! What Albers did is not so easy. He was a recognised authority on chromatology and his book Interaction of Colour is a standard text on the subject. So all these paintings are underpinned by theory. Albers wanted to exemplify, or to catalogue, the various interactions, illusions and modulations of the different colours available to an artist. The effect of viewing individual paintings is therefore extremely diverse. Some seem alive and shimmering, some are relatively inert. Many, after you have looked for a while, perform illusions of three-dimensionality, elision, oscillation and equivalent optical tricks. Some of the squares appear to emphasise depth or recession, like a series of opening doors. Others, in contrast, seem to be piled on top of each other, or even to float as if on a cushion of unseen space between the planes.

These are supposed to be pure chromatic abstractions with absolutely no emotional input from the artist. But a few of the Homages actually have subsidiary titles. One, in yellows and browns, is “High Autumn”; another, in graduated greens, is “Toscana”, and a third dares to sport the distinctly emotive subtitle “Calm Hour”. These aberrations from the strictly abstract are in a small minority, and the names appeared only after the paintings were finished, according to the effect they were then deemed to have. In giving these names I wonder if Albers was bowing to pressure. I somehow doubt that he was, in his old age, any keener on this naming than on teaching his students to draw naked girls.

‘Josef Albers’ is at the Waddington Galleries, London W1, until March 24. Tel )20 7851 2200

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