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Seeing Albers

Forget the writing assignment. Forget the criticism. Forget the research, at least for now. When you walk into the Josef Albers exhibit at the Edgewood Art Gallery, come in just to see it. This is the message behind the new exhibit “Search Versus Re-Search: Josef Albers, Artist and Educator,” which opened Tues., Sept. 15 to a crowd of wide eyes and murmuring voices. One man, staring at a sketch filled with short vertical lines, unconsciously moved his hand through the air in a rolling wave. Another held a skateboard under his arm as he walked from one collection of colors to another. In a small corner sectioned off by glass, pairs and trios of gallery-goers watched a film of the paper folding process.

 Josef Albers has been influencing the Yale School of Art ever since he stepped in as Chair of the Department of Design in 1950. Anoka Faruqee, the show’s curator and head of Yale’s painting and printmaking department, told me, “I think being at Yale, a liberal arts, very academic institution, our tendency is to analyze and to use language first, and use perception second. And Albers reversed that paradigm.” In curating this exhibit at Yale, Faruqee herself does the same.

For Faruqee, Albers’ main breakthrough in the way Yale teaches art lies in the name of the exhibit: “Search Versus Research.” “Search indicates trial and error,” she said. “And that’s the primary thing as an artist; you have to experience the world, you have to experience color and texture first, before you theorize about it.” In the exhibit, a display case of sketches drawn on cheap, yellowing newsprint reveals this mentality. By flipping from one thin page to the next, Faruqee explained that Albers’ students could “let go of that preciousness and take risks.” When speaking to a group of current art students at the exhibit, Faruqee delivered a similar message: “The fastest way to shoot yourself in the foot is to be obsessed with the end product.”

That’s the brilliance of the Albers show; it lets us behind the scenes of Albers’ approach to art, but then it makes us stop to just see the shapes, lines, and colors. We find ourselves searching before re-searching. Albers has taught generations of students to appreciate art this way. Faruqee remembered a paper-folding project she did as an architecture undergraduate at Yale in the 90s, at the time unaware that her assignment was a variation of something Albers had introduced.

“I made this kind of crazy paper construction,” she said, laughing. “I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, and I just looked so blue. All the warmth had been sucked out of me.” Though Faruqee said her blueness had less to do with exhaustion and more to do with contrast from the bright red-orange paper she was working with, her dedication to the work was clear. At the far end of the Albers exhibit, a display of white folded paper made decades before Faruqee’s architecture project echoes that same spirit of commitment to a simple concept.
In another section of the Albers show, I marveled at bold collages made with pieces of colored paper. Albers wanted his students to focus on perception and composition, and by assigning paper collages he avoided laborious task of pigment mixing. I could imagine Albers’ students, so many years ago, figuring out how to study color without even mixing it. “Students would dumpster dive,” Faruqee said. “They would use anything that was available to them.”

While dumpster diving is no longer a School of Art pastime, Yale students still find ways to use Albers’ teaching. An iPad app based on Albers’ 1963 book Interaction of Color—a collection of screenprinted color plates—is available on three iPads at the exhibit, and it is now incorporated into a freshman seminar called Blue. Projects done on the app can be reproduced over and over, like Albers’ newsprint, and have readily available colors, like his collages. The app introduces a new dimension of accessibility to Albers’ color ideas; Faruqee said students were so afraid of getting thumbprints on the original 1963 book, they couldn’t truly play around with it.

 The idea of “Search versus Re-Search” expands beyond the scope of Albers’ own practice. As we walked around the exhibit, we approached each piece like a game, teasing our own eyes and perceptions of color. It seemed out of place, even childish, to be so lighthearted in an art gallery—but then again, that was the point. I watched Professor Faruqee tell a group of students to stare at a small black dot inside a red circle and then look at a white one. At the resulting ooh’s and aah’s, Faruqee let out a triumphant “Yes”! The exhibit at Edgewood reminds us that Albers’ philosophy extend beyond the gallery walls. It echoes in our lives as students.

“Search versus Re-Search,” a phrase collected from one of Albers’ own quotes, has stuck around to influence Yale for generations. We see it in Albers’ work and his students’ work. More importantly, as we go to classes, attend art events, and explore exhibits like the Albers show, we can continue Albers’ legacy in our own appreciation for the work we do during our own Yale careers.

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