Three quarters of the way through Josef Albers'
of Color, he says, offhandedly, between double dashes: "
as in life so with color "
Interaction of Color
by Josef Albers
It is the charm, the merit, the profundity of
this small book in the guise of a teaching implement, in
the guise of prose with spare words and deliberate line breaks
measuring each line as if it were a 75-page poem that Albers
does and doesn't seem to know it is about more than color. It
is "as in life." The first time I read this book I found
myself copying out whole lines as you would a guide to living,
a how-to. Or a poem.
On page 2: " What counts here first
and last is not so-called knowledge/ of so-called facts,
but vision seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen(as in Weltanschauung)
and is coupled/ with fantasy, with imagination."
There are many painters you would read for their
writing. Kandinsky's poems, Motherwell's speech to psychiatrists,
David Smith on himself, Matisse on anything...
Albers' thin self-contained book is not like other
art writing. Not like other teaching manuals. It was first published
in 1963. Painters still use it for what he intended. But should
it be read by others for more?
Albers' voice, vision.
It is one thing to have a vision. Another to make
a vision visible. One way is through art. Another might be talking
about art. He seems to be talking about color interaction and
about something else: the interaction of color seems to have a
Page 1: "In visual perception a thing is
never seen as it really is."
Page 3: "Each will receive the same projection
on his retina,/but no one can be sure whether each has the same
Page 20: "One....color can perform many...
Page 20: "One is able to 'push light and/or
hue,/by the use of contrasts, away from their first appearance/toward
the opposite qualities."
Page 22: "Colors read differently/from what
they really (physically) are."
Page 42: "By giving up preference for harmony,/we
accept dissonance to be as desirable as consonance."
Page 44: "Independent /of harmony rules,
any color 'goes ' or 'works'with any other color/presupposing
that their quantities are appropriate."
Page 44: "The increase in amount of a color.../....reduces
distance.....produces...intimacy and respect."
Page 66: "Its [color's] greatest excitement
lies beyond rules and canons."
Is he talking about something beyond color?
Page 52: "As we begin principally with the
material, color itself, and its action and interaction as registered
in our minds, we practice first and mainly a study of ourselves."
His spare text, seventy-five pages, is a series
of line breaks and separations between paragraphs (stanzas?) that
make you know, feel, that each word is important, that the rhythms
of the words are important. That the way the words look on a page
Could a teaching manual be the vehicle for a subject
larger than itself? Albers' choice of subject, color, is in his
paintings and in his teaching. Color, he tells us, is the most
relative medium. And shows through analogies with all the senses
and with diverse subjects music, cooking, photography,
theater, psychology, weather, architecture... And finally: Life
is like color.
Wallace Stevens says, in The
Necessary Angel : "There is still another reader
for whom the effect of analogy is the effect of the degree of
appositeness, for whom the imaginative projection, the imaginative
deviation, raises the question of rightness, as if in the vast
association of ideas there existed for every object its appointed
objectification." (page 114)
Color is never seen as it really is. It deceives
continually. It evokes innumerable readings. Even its opposite.
It can work with any other. The more it manifests itself, the
more intimate it is. And respectworthy. You have to see it (color
action) as well as feel it (color relatedness).
As I read and reread this book I too associate,
substitute: Color. Person. Life.
Page 17 (Albers): "As it is with people in
our daily life, so it is with color."
The reader is learning about color and much more.
About humans and human invention and how they mutually reflect.
Page 22 (Albers): "...colors read differently/from
what they really (physically) are..."
Humans do too.
Stevens (p. 118): "There is always an analogy
between nature and the imagination, and possibly poetry is merely
the strange rhetoric of that parallel: a rhetoric in which the
feeling of one man is communicated to another in words of the
exquisite appositeness that takes away all verbality."
Not that Interaction
of Color is poetry. But Albers's subject, devoid of ego,
is experience projected on the screen of color. The book implies
and imparts human truths as well as physical/optical truths.
Albers uses what he calls "the most relative
medium in art" to create an open-ended suggestibility.
The book makes me think about vision. About the
vision Stevens says we are born with. About Albers's vision. Aboutinvention
Albers, page 64: "We have found that/ nature
occasionally provides an opportunity to see ["equal light
intensities"] on cumulus clouds/against blue sky........gleaming
white....in full sunlight,/separate from and rising against a
distant deep blue....underneath they show gray tones as shaded
white....boundaries between gray and blue vanish, and we do not
see where clouds end and where sky begins."
Writing infused with something deeper than information.
Do not read this book just for information. See
how the particular can achieve a metaphoric language when a subject
is as Stevens says "essential." (p. 121) "It is
often said of a man that his work is autobiographical in spite
of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise, even though it may
be totally without reference to himself."
Albers's words are spare. His tone is reserved.
And it keeps meaning more than color. His allusions flare. He
creates a palette from the spectrum of senses and a spectrum of
varied unrelated subjects he relates to his subject: photography,
theater, psychology, cooking, weather...He compares color and
music harmony. He compares visual and auditory memory.
Sometimes there is the aura of a poem. His line
breaks really make us pay attention to the rhythms and the metaphoric
Page 45: "In a very different way, distant
mountains appear uniformly blue, no matter whether covered with
green trees...The sun is glaring white in daytime, but is full
red at sunset."
And we learn a humane progressive approach to
Page 69: "[Our study of color] promotes a
more lasting teaching and learning through experience. Its aim
is development of creativeness/realized in discovery and invention
the criteria of creativity,/...being imagination and fantasy."
Page 69: "Advocate..../learning which promotes
recognition of insight
Page 71: "Education is self-education."
Page 71: "In the end, teaching is a matter
not of method but of heart....[a teacher's] enthusiastic concern
with the students' growth counts more than how much he knows."
Page 71: "Teaching is more a giving of right
questions than a giving of right answers."
The teaching examples are accessible: On page
3 he cites Coca-Cola signs. On page 8 he advocates dipping your
own hands in water so that one "feels experiences
perceives....a discrepancy between physical and psychic
In comparing the visual and the auditory on page
34, he invokes the four tones of "Good morning to you."
Page 45: "Usually we think of an apple as
being red" to explain "film colors."
On page 45, he uses the example of tea in a spoon
and tea in a cup to
explain "volume color effect."
p. 44: "To use a theatrical parallel:/A set
of 4 colors is to be considered singly as "actors,"/together
as "cast." They are to be presented in 4 different/arrangements
p. 42: "Good painting, good coloring, is
comparable to good cooking. Even a good cooking recipe demands
tasting and repeated tasting/while it is being followed./And the
best tasting still depends on a cook with taste."
We learn why Kandinsky's paintings work. What
Cezanne, Van Gogh, Soutine, Matisse, and Klee discovered.
Sometimes Albers is practically biblical:
Page 23: "He who claims to see colors independent
of their illusionary changes/feels only himself and no one else."
Maybe this thin self-contained tome is tamed emotion.
Maybe this, like his art pieces exploding with color theory, is
an analogous art piece
Try reading this book for the wrong reasons. Not
for information or even to learn about the subject. But to see
how a subject can mean more than itself.
ALSO DRAWN ON IN THIS ESSAY
Stevens, Wallace. The
Necessary Angel. New York: Vintage Books, 1942.
Editor's Note: Both the Albers and the Stevens
titles are available in more current editions than were used in
the preparation of this article.
Albers, Josef. The Rhetoric of Color Yale University Press,
1987. pb, 81 pp. $12.00.
Stevens, Wallace. The
Necessary Angel, Random House, 1987. pb $9.00.