Among the numerous activities and shows fostered by the “Autunno Americano” (in case you haven’t been able to check them out, give a look at the article 2013 – Year of Italian Culture in the United States – America discovers Italy) there is the “Josef Albers: Sublime Optics” show at Palazzo delle Stelline in Milan.

Josef Albers was a professor and artist of German origins whose American citizenship was later granted. He was born in 1888 from a catholic craftsman family, lived in Germany until 1933 and collaborated with the Bauhaus as a professor at the Design department. When the Nazis decisively imposed their dictatorship, he fled to the USA and managed to obtain the painting teaching post (?) first at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, and later at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, where he will stay until his death in 1976.

The show has the purpose of exploring the spirituality in Albers’ art without any connection to his religious confession (Catholicism), which was one of the pillars of his life prospective, but rather concentrating on the “veneration of the unexplainable” and on the sublime element hidden in it.

The artist’s goal is the one of  “revealing and evoking a vision”, this topic was very diffused among the generation of artists he belonged to: in other words, but actually saying the same thing, Klee once stated: “Art does not reproduce what is visible but makes visible what not always is”. As a consequence, in Albers’ work the determination of “opening the observer’s eyes” bursts from the firm belief of perceiving the miraculous in the material world. And his art is the exact manifesto of this view.

The art pieces presented at the show come from each phase of Albers’ artistic work life. The paintings are organized according to three main guidelines: line, shape and color; this choice was guided mostly by the pursuit of a thematic continuity rather than by the desire of identifying a chronological evolution.

The first gallery encloses the illusions that the artist managed to create developing the line theme. Works that are dated to the 1910s, 1940s and 1950s are displayed in this section (Graphic Tectonics and Structural Constellations). Right here begins the path towards that attempt to reach an authentic vision: paintings, formally perfect, come to life in the alternation of black surfaces and white lines. The seeming two-dimensionality just melts away; it hides in it the vital rhythm to which the artist devoted his soul. Surfaces emerge, sink within the deep, and the spectators’ eyes can only adapt to this perpetual and unstable movement. Fullness and emptiness coexist in a duality that is both antagonistic and harmonious, they fight without destroying themselves.


Going on in this particular gallery, Albers’ use of illusory shapes evokes a deep consideration on material objects and spaces.  In Equal and Unequal, two shapes, apparently simple, reveal themselves as symmetric and asymmetric. The tested analysis on the lines is broadened to shapes too, they break down and they recompose, they are both in the foreground and in the background, they are pure substance: sublime icons.


The show goes on to the second floor. Along the staircase that connects the two floors, the pictures that A. shot during his fourteen “pilgrimages” in Mexico and in Latin America are displayed. He chooses to define his journeys “pilgrimages” because he believes that “Mexico is really the promised land of abstract art. It has been here for thousands of years”. While watching the pre-Columbian monuments, the artist feels a deep reverence in front of the sublime that takes his breath away: “Once more I was completely numb, as if my breath was too short. [..] I felt an extraordinary admiration for the spaces in between the pyramids [..]”. Pictures of stairs fill up walls and eyes, the rise towards the unspoken involves the spectator entirely.

I arrive to the second and final gallery, dedicated entirely to color. The analysis concentrates on pure relations among colors, shapes sway, they are changing and amorphous. The arrangement, just like the piece on the show’s ad (Variant Arancione, Rosa e 4 grigi), creates the illusion of a superior color area on top of another, so to determine a hierarchy. If you look more carefully, though, you will notice that this assumption is unproven and baseless, in spite of the fact that the artist wanted it, in fact there are many different colors that, in terms of surface, are present in the same exact amount.

In the chromatic examination of this room, the “Omaggi al quadrato” trend emerges, with its supremacist taste (?), though, accompanied by playfulness which is completely absent in Melvich’s absolutism; one of the pieces is entitled “Omaggio al quadrato (tropicale)” because of the yellow shade used. He gives us the chance to see what he sees thanks to a series of paintings representing “concentric” squares of different colors. Meaningful is the sentence by Nicholas Fox Weber: “Two months before his eightieth birthday, Josef begins an Omaggio al quadrato with light blues and greens accurately chosen. He considers the central square as a representation of the universe, surrounded but the sea and by earth. The chromatic choice has the purpose of softening the edges of the universe that has no sharp edge or painted angles, he explains. He chooses the Omaggio form with a big central square because he sais that the universe is getting closer. This is his last painting”.

 Josef Albers, a life dedicate to the genuine and compassionate sharing of beauty.

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