Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square (1968). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ VG Bild-Kunst and DACS
Caroline Lewis visits Tate Modern for a thorough and far reaching investigation into the work of two Modernist abstract painters
Tate Modern is holding its first exhibition of early Modernist abstract works, by two pioneers of the genre, Josef Albers (1888-1976) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). The show, which is a major display with more than 300 works, runs from March 9 to June 4 2006.
German-born Albers and Hungarian Moholy-Nagy both worked in Weimar Germany and shared a similar outlook, but they never worked together and are best known for rather different things (the ‘Homage to the Square’ paintings and black and white photography, respectively).
Their lives did overlap however, when they taught at the famous art and design school the Bauhaus between 1923 and 1928, and each of them settled in the USA after it closed.
Both artists aimed to break new ground from the outset, rejecting representational art early on in their careers and exploring the changing meaning of art in the industrialised world. They experimented with painting, photography, glass and new plastic materials, producing works that complemented each other in many senses, as the exhibition aims to demonstrate.
Albers, Rhenish Legend (1921) © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ VG Bild-Kunst and DACS. Photo© The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The first room gives a taste of Moholy-Nagy’s early photograms – abstract, ghostly images made by placing objects on light sensitive paper – and Albers’ first mosaic-like experimentations with coloured glass. Moving onwards, it is obvious how each artist developed far more definitive styles in comparison to this post-First World War work.
Teaching at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, where founder Walter Gropius aimed to generate a new style of architecture and craft that was functional and feasible to be mass-produced, the artists began to combine industrial techniques, ideas and art.
Moholy-Nagy gave his works titles as abstract as they looked and that sounded like serial numbers (‘Construction Z 1’, ‘K XVII’). He even employed a sign-painter to execute some of his paintings. All straight lines and perfect shapes in black, grey and red with the occasional blue and yellow, his canvases are infused with the Constructivist zeitgeist prevalent at the Bauhaus.
László Moholy-Nagy, A19 (1927). © Hattula Moholy-Nagy/DACS
This style was revived after the Second World War and Moholy-Nagy’s influence can be seen in the work of Victor Pasmore as late as the 1960s.
At the same time, Albers was sandblasting glass and creating uncomplicated works that could potentially be mass-produced with the use of stencils. ‘Tectonic Group’ (1925), ‘Goldrosa’ (c.1925) and ‘Upward’ (c.1926) all employ the same design of black, white and a single colour in interlocking stripes.
These could easily be graphics from 1980s computer games – who would place artwork using fluorescent green, pink and electric blue in the 1920s?
His nest of tables (c.1927), with their brightly coloured glass tops, would not look out of place in the 1950s or 60s; the typeface he designed in 1926 could be an even later creation.
Josef Albers, Goldrosa (c. 1926). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ VG Bild-Kunst and DACS
There is the overwhelming sense of contemporary logos in Albers’ style, an indication of how influential this early Modernist work has been on design.
It could also be said that some of his work is early op-art: a large part of the body on show is composed of black and grey glass with straight white lines suggesting structures like stairs and polyhedrons, sometimes acting like optical illusions.
These, together with colour works like ‘Cables’ (1931) evoke his interest in the fact that perception is not caused by external reality alone.
In the last room of the show are his ‘Variant’, paintings (1947-1952) said to be inspired by Mexican adobe houses. They are another example of his foray into a kind of op-art, as although one colour appears to dominate, Albers applied an equal amount of different colours on each painting.
Albers, Set of Four Stacking Tables (c. 1927). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ VG Bild-Kunst and DACS. Photo: Tim Nighswander
The legacy of surrealism is more evident in Moholy-Nagy’s work – particularly in his photomontages featuring people and animals in strange formations. His black and white photos of Bauhaus balconies, and of people and dolls laying in front of railings that cast a criss-cross pattern on their bodies call to mind Man Ray and Dada.
This is not to say that Moholy-Nagy was not innovating. When he left Germany in 1934 (following the election of the Nazis), he worked with new synthetic materials with sci-fi names like Rhodoid, Galalith and Perspex, and undertook commercial work for the London Underground and Imperial Airways.
He also took up colour photography with verve when it was in its infancy, as a slide show of experimental images from the late 1930s reveals.
Moholy-Nagy, Poster for London Transport Museum: Quickly Away, Thanks to Pneumatic Doors (1937). © Hattula Moholy-Nagy/DACS
Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago in 1937 and founded first the New Bauhaus, then the School of Design. The 1940s brought personal crisis, however, as he was diagnosed with leukaemia.
A rather intimate set of drawings is on show, some of which he completed on his sickbed. One depicts atomic diagrams, pointing to his fascination with the nuclear bomb. Two large paintings of globe shapes filled with fractured colours have unambiguous titles: Nuclear I, CH (1945) and Nuclear II (1946).
Both Albers and Moholy-Nagy were not just leading the way in Modernism with their artwork, but moulding a new generation of artists and designers at the Bauhaus and later Black Mountain College in North Carolina (Albers) and the Chicago Institute of Design (Moholy-Nagy).
Moholy-Nagy, Nuclear I, CH (1945). © 2006 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/DACS Photo © The Art Institute of Chicago
A section of the exhibition is devoted to the radical approach they took as teachers, with students’ work, teaching volumes written by Moholy-Nagy and aphorisms on education writ large on the walls.
“School should allow a lot to be learned, which is to say that it should teach little,” goes one of Albers’, exemplifying the Bauhaus goal of unleashing creative potential rather than formally instructing.
From Bauhaus to the New World generates an appreciation of how art underwent a transformation in the early 20th century due to the inventive efforts of early Modernists like Albers and Moholy-Nagy.
The volume of work on show is impressive, giving a satisfying illustration of the artists’ ongoing development and experimentation, and an understanding of how a primarily European movement became an enduring influence in both America and the rest of the world.