Albers and Morandi: ‘Never Finished’ at Albert David Zwirner

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Albers and Morandi: Never Finished,” a show of the two major 20th-century artists Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) and Josef Albers (1888-1976) would, at first thought, seem slightly irrational. Morandi, who lived in Bologna and taught at art school there, for his entire career was mostly concerned with the still life: arrangements of glass bottles and jars on tables. His art possesses extraordinary emotion and visual integrity, linked to a sharp awareness of the past, including the influence of Cezanne, whose flat planes and muted colors attracted the Italian artist.  Albers, born in Germany but who came to America in 1933 to teach at Black Mountain College and then in 1950 moved to Yale University, is best known as a committed modernist: his remarkable series “Homage to the Square,”  was begun in 1950. For this sequence, in every painting he used four squares, each a different color, for the individual works of art; the squares were superimposed on top of each other, in graduated sizes. The descriptions of the two bodies of work couldn’t be more different, but can suggest an affinity between the two artists, in terms of color especially. Yet for this writer, the show emphasizes not an alignment but a contrast, even if the gallery has set them in close proximity. Morandi, it seems to me, is a poet, someone who bases his art on emotion, while Albers is nearly scientific in his investigation of a specific set of circumstances, rationally devised by the artist himself. Perhaps the tie linking the two men is the reach of their achievement.

Morandi worked again and again within a very small field, directing his attention to a few cups and canisters that he arranged in total simplicity, one next to the other on the flat plane of a table. The grouping of objects was almost always backed by a wall, painted a muted gray or brown. At first his arrangements might seem profoundly repetitive, but over time the paintings took on the repetitions and slights of a musical repetition–a fugue given to the reiteration of forms that emphasized the homely integrity of his objects. It is unusual to speak of humility in a painter belonging to the 20th century, but the characterization is true. His repetitions tend to speak quietly rather than shout, and communicate nothing personal beyond an interest in the independent strength of things. This may be the point where Morandi and Albers are closest: both men produced a body of work that oriented toward the eradication of the personal, in contrast and perhaps in opposition to the mostly American expressionism that was so popular at the time. In a good way, Morandi was an Old Master following his figurative muse during an era which, while given to feeling, also had turned to abstraction, of both an organic and geometric kind. Yet Morandi’s formalism was of a different sort, ultimately limited to a single theme, in which the integrity, indeed the idealism, of things as they are took precedent over artists favoring formal innovation or the expression of a personal energy.

We can only speculate on why this was so. An artist’s temperament is not usually explainable, being an incontrovertible given of the painter himself. Morandi’s work speaks volumes about painterly tradition, but at the same time they are reticent examples of art, being muted in their color, their size, their relations to the past. One returns again to the close kinship between one still liffe and the next, only occasionally broken by the presence of a landscape. The narrow range of his subject matter favors close study, almost a scholarly awareness, but there is nothing triumphalist in its implications. Morandi’s reticence, evident at once in the paintings, was at once a visual strategy and an ethical stance, in the sense that his tactics, while visionary in their implications, implied an esthetic of self-denial, to be replaced by the dexterity of the hand. If one were to view Morandi’s output with a more critical eye, we could say that, like Albers, the repetitive of his theme can come close to doing away with some visual interest. But Morandi did what he did with so much feeling that the paintings communicate their visual support as much by emotion as by form (we will look at Albers’ more rational reiterations later). This is generally an attribute of 20th century art; one thinks of the repeated structure in Mark Rothko’s paintings, which are perhaps most impressive as examples of his emotional life, given the very narrow range of his visual compositions.

So Morandi’s depth intensifies the classicism of his paintings. An artist of remarkable rigor, he invests his art with a presence regularly relegated to the margins in a time favoring innovation and emotional transparency. He can only be praised, again and again, not only for the quiet aura of his still lifes but also the restraint with which he introduces their ability to speak, as if from a distance mediated by art history. One does not have to insist on his greatness to appreciate his calm retrieval of the still life, an important subgenre of painting, albeit one that had been nearly overwhelmed by the past and was seen as an archaism. But then this is exactly the source of his accomplishment: the re-creation of a visual theme in a way that paid homage to earlier efforts but also possessed the excitement of something newly perceived. Thus, we cannot call Morandi old-fashioned, no matter how distant he seems to have been in regard to the experiments of his time (at least in his painting). Moreover, any artist who is influenced by Cezanne can hardly be deemed a painter who only looked backward; Cezanne’s structural innovations are so major as to feel close to up-to-date even now, long after he passed away. Today, because we are so obsessed with innovation for its own sake, we may see Morandi’s accomplishments with a perfunctory disinterest. But that is entirely mistaken if we truly evaluate his work.

One can see Morandi’s quiet integrity in the paintings themselves. Natura morta con bottiglia bianca e piccola bottiglia blu (1955) has only two bottles in the picture: a white bottle divided into halves, with a rounded, sphere-like bottom divided into vertical segments, above which a top that slopes upward into a narrow throat with a lipped opening. It stands above the dark blue bottle standing next to it, which is only about half the white bottle’s size. It has a rounded bottom and a narrow throat too, but its cap consists of a sphere-like top. The two bottles are found in the middle of the painting, behind which we find the gray-brown background Morandi regular used in his art. The muted evocative atmosphere associated with the painter’s oeuvre, which expresses so much while asserting so little, is amply evident even in so simple an arrangement. In Natura Morta (1953), the composition is more complex, due to the greater number of objects. Here we see three bottles–the left one a very light brown, the middle piece a clean white, and the right a dark, slightly yellowish brown. In front of the brown bottle is a flat white square, presumably made of ceramic, and to the right of the bottles is a tall white cup. Then, behind the bottles, we see a group of rectangular forms, of different dark colors such as orange, gray, black, and brown, set together like books on a shelf. They seem to support Morandi’s placement of objects, even though it is unclear exactly what they are. Again and again, Morandi invests the simplest of items with lyric mystery, in timeless fashion.

Fiori, a small work (11 ½ by 81/2 inches) done in 1947, consists of a white vase, its outline curving in and out, has a decorated band in the middle. It holds a group of flowers, prominently featuring a couple of daisies. If we think of the bold expressionism occurring across the Atlantic in America, this painting might be considered staid. Yet it is not, being instead an example of a genre Morandi was able to keep alive by virtue of a traditionalism that valued history as a framework for emotion. Like most of Morandi’s art, the painting is possessed by a quiet intensity, in which nature–the flowers–and culture–the decorated vase–merge in light of his creativity. In one of the show’s prints, Morandi stays close to the paintings. The 1957 work, called Natura Morta, portrays three tall and thin bottles,  grouped closely together. A light, speckled brown bottle is found on the left while in the middle is a tall white bottle with a slim handle, and on the right the bottle, equally tall, is dark brown. Behind them are the rectangles of form, quiet in color, that we see backing some of Morandi’s compositions. Perhaps it is wisest to understand these works as devoted to the act of painting, in good part because the genres they represent are so conventional as to evoke no feelings of innovation. Yet they are new, being investigations into how a genre might be kept alive by a continuing attention to its attributes, rendered exquisitely suggestive by Morandi’s attention to atmosphere.

Atmosphere, that unquantifiable attribute in painting, may be recognized without analysis. The forms Morandi uses contribute to a feeling not easily found in 20th-century art. Yet it cannot be said his works example an antiquated sensibility. Something different, and extremely beautiful, takes place in the paintings: a focus that allows the jars and canisters to exist as they are, independently but also within the art history associated with the still life. Morandi escapes reiteration by generating an aura in the work that is nearly palpable in its grasp of both object and audience. He achieves this grip by means of emotion, another fiercely difficult element to define in painting. Interestingly, Albers, Morandi’s companion in this exhibition, can be likened to a researcher, nearly a scientific investigator. His nearly endless versions of a basic pattern start to look like an objective experiment, one free of the deep emotion that we encounter in Morandi. As a German-born artist working at Yale, a major American university, he would have had to incorporate his working method within a kind of modernist measure Morandi probably did not feel he had to respond to, in a major fashion, in Bologna. But one of the virtues of this show is that the work of both men achieved a classic status, despite the sharp differences in their temperament and style.

If Morandi was romantic, perhaps melancholic in nature, Albers radiated the forthright optimism of someone whose temperament agreed with that of the New World. Both men taught to make a living; both men developed their work within a narrow spectrum of expression. Albers’ modernism depended on the notion of an endless sequence, a visual fugue whose elements were extremely few. Yet the show proves that, within the artist’s chosen confines, a sense of ongoing, nearly infinite, possibility occurred. The different colors of the squares in each composition extend the rationalism of his choices into a place of open expansion, being a clearing in thought rather than a constraint. It may be very difficult to impose a reading of the work based on feeling, but that is not what the artist was after. Instead, he invested color with the physical rhythm of change. At the time, in the middle of the last century and given the single abstract form he worked with, this was a true innovation. If we move into a realm of pure abstraction, art can easily support an analytic outlook–as easily as it makes forays into emotion. Albers may have foregone atmosphere in favor of the academic study of color within very tight confines, but that does not make him less an artist than Morandi. Instead, he was someone whose gifts compelled him to work as if in a laboratory, where his process was transparent rather than difficult to comprehend.

As I have written, the structure of Albers’ paintings is simple: four squares of increasing size, each square painted a different color, set on top of each other. The works are rational in the extreme, developing subtle contrasts in color but evidencing emotional restraint. Given the constraints of the form, the sequence feels more like an exercise in color contrast. In Study to Homage to the Square, Quiescent (1952), the square fronting the composition, the smallest square is black, backed by a gray square (whose edges we see only, as happens regularly throughout the series), then by a deep, dark maroon, then by white, followed a a gray frame. The painting possesses nearly an architectural solidity, exercising the simplest of means to highlight how different colors interact and quite literally back each other in support of an image that comes close to design but remains very much a work of art. The question of design is important to a measured understanding of Albers’ sequence, but this body of work is more truly oriented toward a painterly understanding of color. This is born out in another work, Homage to the Square (1953), which has, as its facing image, a black square, behind which is a dark red square followed by one that is a bit lighter red. The three geometric shapes are framed by the thin, white edges of a fourth square. Despite the simplicity of the work’s structure, complexity ensues. This is the key to the series: intricacy is generated by the subtle play in color, and by the nearly endless slight differences from one work to the next.

The 1968 work Homage to the Square: White Aura, begins with a yellow square, behind which is a white one, followed by a lighter yellow, nearly tan-colored square, followed by a very thin edge of white. The brighter colors make this painting seemingly more optimistic, but perhaps, once again, it is the structure that is emphasized. No matter the hues or the scheme, White Aura stands out as a compelling painting, one that transcends the deliberate boundaries Albers chose for his art. In another Study, done in 1954, the colors stand out beautifully: a deep blue on a dark green on a slightly lighter green on gray, surrounded by a thick white frame. The colors mix beautifully rather than contrast, introducing us to Albers’ prominent strength, repeated over time: the play of hue, sometimes close in color and sometimes not. The work is like a fugue that could, in theory, go on forever. Albers was a master of subtlety in change–his structure, the four squares dropped quite low in the compositional plane–enabled (or maybe forced) him to concentrate on gradations of color that would align or contrast as he saw fit.

This meant that his art achieved a harmony as close to music as to visual art. In an early work from 1954, called Study to “Affectionate” (Study for Homage to the Square), Albers turns to warm colors: orange against a dark gray-black, backed by two orange planes, the first darker than the second. A thick white frame surrounds the picture. Orange dominates the work, which does communicate affection despite its abstract nature. Albers’ strength is that, despite the very limited means he chose for himself, he understood that the reiteration of a simple format, made intricate by differences in hue, would result in complex turns of feeling–not exactly what we would expect if we were exposed to a factually oriented description of the Homage to the Square series. Repetitive efforts are a mainstay of creativity in the 20th century; they enabled the artist to find infinite variety within a style that had been difficult to achieve but, given the narrative limitations of abstraction (as opposed to the freedom of subject matter in figuration), forced the painter into a narrow spectrum. Thus, small variations within a general outlook became an accepted way of extending the life of the image.

This is a good way of understanding Albers’ work, but strangely, it can serve to describe Morandi’s as well, even though he was working with recognizable objects and not within the boundaries of abstraction. Morandi could have varied the objects but chose not to. Maybe his refusal to work out of a broader visual grouping was, in its way, a nod to modernism’s emphasis on reiteration; one could almost call his still lifes a series. This means that Morandi can be seen as more modern than our first glance at his art would establish.  Albers had an inquiring mind, while Morandi had a magnificent temperament; both followed the particular kind of freedom generated by closely following a basic composition. They were both classic artists. The idea that a classic work of art is “never finished” sheds light on the notion that the intellectual and emotional reach of an outstanding body of work points in two directions: the implication of something lasting across time and culture because of its ability to communicate to the audience no matter when and where they took interest. It also serves as a reminder that sequences of imagery in major artists’ work are ongoing, whose formal implications remain alive or are even intensified despite or because of the painter’s mortality. Morandi and Albers created windows that enable us to see creativity at work. Their seeming repetitiveness gives us the chance to understand how an artist might think in a time when sequences of closely related works studied the huge possibilities of enjoined form–its ability to transform reiteration into something much more free than that. I can think of very few artists who did this as well as Morandi and Albers, masters of the last century.

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