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Small-Great Objects, small-great artists

Take the west elevator to the fourth floor of the Yale University Art Gallery and you will find yourself amongst a curious collection of miniature figures, intricate tapestries, and color-block paintings. The museum’s newest special exhibition, which will be on show until June 18, is not your typical showcase.

In collaboration with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and the Yale Peabody Museum, the YUAG has opened its doors to Small-Great Objects: Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas, an exhibition that foregrounds the interplay between the Albers’ art-making and art-collecting practices. The display not only presents paintings, weavings, and photographs that the couple produced throughout their lives, but also highlights the experiences that influenced their work as artists, educators, and collectors.

Between 1935 and 1967, Anni and Josef made more than a dozen trips to Latin America, namely Mexico and Peru. On their visits, the couple collected over 1,400 ancient objects and more than 100 textiles. Many of these works can now be seen amongst Josef’s photo collages and Anni’s journal entries, documenting the immense influence Latin America had on the couple’s creative vision.

The exhibition captures the time the couple spent in different areas of Latin America by dividing the gallery space into five sections. In each, short podcasts describe snippets of the couple’s life—from their first 2,000-mile drive from North Carolina to Mexico City in June of 1936 to their visits to archaeological digs at Monte Albán in Oaxaca. The audio-addition to the museum experience reveals that this exhibition is not primarily about the artistic achievement of two of the most influential figures in 20th century modernism, but rather about the lives of two exceptional individuals. By centering the exhibition on the artists rather than on the art, curator Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye has provided a new window through which to view Josef and Anni’s changing creative process. Reynolds-Kaye suggests that we need context in order to understand and appreciate the Albers’ art, and provides it through snapshots of Anni’s journal entries and conversations the couple had with friends while staying in Mexico.

In a journal entry, Anni wrote: “It is strange that sculpture and pottery give me ideas for weaving.” In doing so, she acknowledged how great an influence the time she spent in Latin America had on her creative thought. While seemingly eclectic in its pairings of maps and podcasts, prints and decorative art, photographs and ancient figures, the exhibition forces the viewer not only to reimagine the lives Anni and Josef led, but to rethink the museum experience and consider what we miss out on when we see only the end result of an artist’s thought. In Small-Great Objects, we see the artists before the art, the influences before the final product, and most notably, the small taking precedence over the large.

While the Albers’ artwork looms in the gallery space, the objects in their collection are rather small in contrast. Many of the ancient figures, borrowed from the Yale Peabody Museum, could fit in the palm of one’s hand. The collages of Josef’s photographs that dot the exhibition space are similarly small scale, requiring the viewer to lean in closely to make out the shapes and landscapes Josef brought together.

Aptly titled, Small-Great Objects aims to emphasize that, as one of the podcasts says, “art didn’t need to be big, that the monumental and the meaningful could lie in the handheld. The small can be great.” More than that, this exhibition shows that the life of the artist is just as fascinating as the art we are accustomed to seeing hanging on the walls of museums.

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