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Art What!: Josef Albers – Primary Colors at David Zwirner Hong Kong

Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, 1963 © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and David Zwirner

HONG KONG – David Zwirner is pleased to present Primary Colors, an exhibition of work by Josef Albers (1888–1976). On view at the gallery’s Hong Kong location, this will be the first solo presentation of Albers’s work in Greater China. Curated by Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, the show is a focused examination of how the primary colors red, yellow, and blue, along with black, encompassed an infinite range of chromatic possibilities for Albers, which he explored throughout his career in stunning combinations presented in his signature visual formats. The exhibition coincides with a major retrospective exhibition of Albers’s and his wife and fellow artist Anni Albers’s art at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM), Valencia, Spain, which debuted at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris in 2021.

Josef Albers is considered one of the most influential abstract painters of the twentieth century as well as an important designer and educator. Albers’s artistic career, which bridged European and American modernism, consisted mainly of a tightly focused investigation into the perceptual properties of color and spatial relationships. Working with simple geometric forms, Albers sought to produce the effects of chromatic interaction, in which the visual perception of a color is affected by those adjacent to it. Albers’s precise application of color also created plays of space and depth, as the planar colored shapes that make up the majority of his works appear to either recede into or protrude out of the picture plane.

This exhibition will feature works by Albers from as early as the 1930s, a transitional period for the artist when he and Anni Albers immigrated to North Carolina, where they founded the art department at the famous Black Mountain College, and extending all the way to works he made shortly before his death in 1976. On view will be several paintings from Albers’s Homage to the Square series, his most celebrated body of work. These paintings were based on a nested square format that allowed Albers to experiment with endless chromatic combinations and perceptual effects. The artist has written about this work as follows: “Though the underlying symmetrical and quasi-concentric order of the squares remains the same in all paintings—in proportion and placement—these same squares group or single themselves, connect and separate in many different ways.” 1 He has further written about how the colors in his paintings “are juxtaposed for various and changing visual effects. They are to challenge or to echo each other, to support or to oppose one another.… Such action, reaction, interaction—or interdependence—is sought in order to make obvious how colors influence and change each other; that the same color, for instance—with different grounds or neighbors—looks different.” 2 Works from Albers’s Variant/Adobe series, inspired by the artist’s travels in Latin America, and from an early, rare group of paintings that depicts the visual motif of the treble clef as well as several important paintings and studies for unique works comprised of polygons and other geometric forms will also be presented, illustrating the breadth of his formal and chromatic range.

Elaborating on the significance of color, and the primary colors in particular, as exemplified in the selection of works that will be on view, Danilowitz writes: For Albers color had agency that equaled the agency of living organisms. He wanted, he said, “to make my colors breathe.” Color should be active and alive to the viewer who would ideally have “eyes open to see.” Color could be sensual—soft, hard, embracing, intersecting, and penetrating. By the mid-twentieth century Albers knew and trusted his material so well that he was able to completely submerge his ego and leave it to the viewer to observe that the artist, having performed his experiments with care and attention, could stand back and allow the material alone to work its magic. “Color is a magic force,” he proclaimed. Albers understood that “primary colors” were an idealized version of what color is: that color identity was a subjective phenomenon and contingent on the individual viewer. Color wheels and color charts were attempts to codify color in scientific ways that had little relevance for him, and he avoided them.

“If one in a group says ‘red,’” he wrote, as a statement for a 1952 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, “we can be sure that there are as many different conceptions of red as there are individuals in that group.” A red painting was never simply a red painting, and he would prove it by using three or four different reds in a single Homage to the Square painting and repeating this practice with a range of reds, over and over again. There is no “primary” red, or blue, or yellow.”

Josef Albers: Primary Colors runs from 18th January t 6th March 2022 at David Zwirner Hong Kong, 5–6/F, H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central
Hong Kong
. More information available here

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