What are Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square paintings?

Josef Albers - Study to Homage to the Square - Warm Welcome, 1953 : 1955, oil on Masonite, 56 x 56 cm
Josef Albers – Study to Homage to the Square – Warm Welcome, 1953/1955, oil on Masonite, 56 x 56 cm

‘Homage to the Square’

The celebrated German artist Josef Albers is known and remembered for many things. However, the most notable is perhaps his world-famous series known as Homage to the Square. Albers’s Homage to the Square is also one of the most recognizable and influential series of the twentieth century produced from 1950 to his passing in 1976.

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square, 1972, screenprint, 38.1 x 50.8 cm (15 x 20 in)
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square, 1972, screenprint, 38.1 x 50.8 cm (15 x 20 in)

Josef Albers - Study for Homage to the Square - Deep Tune, 1963, oil on masonite, 76.3 x 76.3 cm (30 x 30 in)
Josef Albers – Study for Homage to the Square – Deep Tune, 1963, oil on masonite, 76.3 x 76.3 cm (30 x 30 in)

Why did Albers create these paintings?

Though deceptively simple, the series transformed how artists approached color theory. The differently colored squares were introduced by Albers to help students and other artists to approach and study color experimentally. Consequently, Albers created more than a thousand square paintings ranging in size from twelve to forty-eight square inches.

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square- Apparition, 1959, oil on masonite, 120.6 x 120.6 cm (47 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches)
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square- Apparition, 1959, oil on masonite, 120.6 x 120.6 cm (47 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.)

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square- Between 2 Scarlets, 1962, 109,5 x 109,5 cm
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square- Between 2 Scarlets, 1962, 109,5 x 109,5 cm, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

Josef Albers - Blue Call (Study for Homage to the Square), 1956, oil on hardboard, 45 x 45 cm
Josef Albers – Blue Call (Study for Homage to the Square), 1956, oil on hardboard, 45 x 45 cm
Photo: Public Delivery

The study of color

The series of paintings shared somewhat the same characteristics throughout the years. For instance, some consisted of three differently colored squares while some were composed of four squares each. A major source of inspiration for the squares was an 1810 phenomenon known as Farbenlehre1 or the Study of color, which was adopted popularly at the Bauhaus where Albers studied and taught.

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square - Cool Rising, 1963, oil on masonite, 76 x 76 cm
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square – Cool Rising, 1963, oil on masonite, 76 x 76 cm

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square - Midsummer, 1963, 101.6 x 101.6 cm (40 x 40 in)
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square – Midsummer, 1963, 101.6 x 101.6 cm (40 x 40 in)

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square, 1961, oil on masonite, 80.8 x 80.8 cm (31 13/16 x 31 13/16 in)
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square, 1961, oil on masonite, 80.8 x 80.8 cm (31 13/16 x 31 13/16 in)

The meaning of the paintings

The strictly ordered series of compositions had no real aesthetic value but they were simply a means to an end. Since there were endless possibilities to use different colors, the squares were merely there to show how different colors react in the spaces in which they are used.

Depending on the proximity of the viewer, the colors may appear brighter to some people while others may seem dimmer. The point is for the audience to perceive the shifting depths, as well as the different tones embedded in the outer and inner perimeters of the squares.

Josef Albers - Sunny Side Up, installation view, David Zwirner, London, 2017
Josef Albers – Sunny Side Up, installation view, David Zwirner, London, 2017

Josef Albers - Grey Steps, Grey Scales, Grey Ladders, installation view, David Zwirner, New York, 2016
Josef Albers – Grey Steps, Grey Scales, Grey Ladders, installation view, David Zwirner, New York, 2016

How did Albers create these paintings?

He created the series of Square paintings by laying a thin layer of paint using a palette knife directly onto the canvas. The paint would be applied directly from the tube and the edges of the squares were painted without the use of tape of rulers.

Each composition would start with the middle square and Albers would work his way to the exterior squares generally making sure not to paint one square over the other so as not to affect the effectiveness of the colors used. The paintings were done on a flat table as opposed to vertically on an easel so as to reinforce the notion of the paintings as platters to communicate the power of color.

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square- Amber Setting, 1959, oil on masonite, 121.9 x 121.9 cm (48 x 48 in)
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square- Amber Setting, 1959, oil on masonite, 121.9 x 121.9 cm (48 x 48 in)

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square - Ascending, 1953, Oil on composition board, 110.3 × 110.3 cm (43 7/16 × 43 7/16 in.)
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square – Ascending, 1953, Oil on composition board, 110.3 × 110.3 cm (43 7/16 × 43 7/16 in.)

Josef Albers - Homage to the Square, 1972, screenprint, 38.1 x 50.8 cm (15 x 20 in)
Josef Albers – Homage to the Square, 1972, screenprint, 38.1 x 50.8 cm (15 x 20 in)

Conclusion

Albers’ experimentation with color and light continued for the duration of his career as a painter and educationists. Although the symmetry and the order of the squares remained consistent through the years, the way the squares grouped themselves connected people in different ways, which is what is so remarkable about the Homage to the Square painting series.

Josef Albers - Study for Homage to the Square - Rooted, 1961, oil on board, 76.2 x 76.2 cm (30 x 30 in)
Josef Albers – Study for Homage to the Square – Rooted, 1961, oil on board, 76.2 x 76.2 cm (30 x 30 in)

Josef Albers - Study for Homage to the Square - Terrestrial II, 1960, Oil on Masonite, 81.3 x 81.3 cm (32 x 32 in)
Josef Albers – Study for Homage to the Square – Terrestrial II, 1960, Oil on Masonite, 81.3 x 81.3 cm (32 x 32 in)

Josef Albers - Study to Homage to the Square - In Space, 1956, oil on masonite, 60.9 x 60.9 cm (24 x 24 in)
Josef Albers – Study to Homage to the Square – In Space, 1956, oil on masonite, 60.9 x 60.9 cm (24 x 24 in)

All images by The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation/albersfoundation.org unless otherwise noted.

Related works

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_theory
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