Seeing, and Believing

M odernism suits us. It suited us long before there was even a word for it, and it suits us now, decades after it officially went out of style.

Its affectionate embrace of both function and form and its emphasis on clean lines, crisp shapes and syntactic thinking echo the fundamental organizational modes of the civilized human. Such impulses have long governed the structures of the homes we build, the apartments we decorate and the businesses we frequent, whose bones and layouts almost always reduce to simple geometry. Such impulses mark the designs of hundreds of American cities including our own, which had one of the earliest grid layouts—perhaps the very earliest—in the New World.

And its affinity with human modes of seeing and shaping is no less visible even within the much more self-aware context of the fine arts. Whatever she’s shooting, a photographer’s view of the world is almost always expressed in rectangles. So are a filmmaker’s and a writer’s. Paper for drawing and canvases for painting, and thus also the frames used to hang them up and present them to viewers, come predominantly in rectangles. So do glass display cases and gallery walls.

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At present, 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery—the Yale School of Art’s cuboid, open-layout satellite space near Mamoun’s Falafel—can be described as containing vivid modernist constructions resting within rectangles anchored on the gallery’s permanent rectangles, reflected in glassy impermanent rectangles containing other vivid constructions. Put another way, there are interesting modernist works hung on the walls and encased in the gallery’s middle. There are also higher-tech rectangles—three iPads and a TV—and a few rectangles that don’t seem very modernist at all.

They’re all part of “Search Versus Re-Search”: Josef Albers, Artist and Educator, a new exhibit curated by YSA professor Anoka Faruqee. The show offers a window into the towering figure of modernism Josef Albers, a Bauhaus-educated instructor who, by the time he was teaching at Yale starting in 1950, had developed powerful intuitions about form and color as well as the pluck to fearlessly assert them. But while the record calls him a modernist, and recollections of the man paint him as a bit of a hard-ass, there are indications that, in the end, he wasn’t much for orthodoxy. The title of the show, for example, derives from an essay Albers penned associating “searching” with innovation, and “re-searching” with stasis. Albers advocated the former. “Why did the masters become masters?” he wrote. “Because they tried to say something other than their masters had, not only different and new, but alive and ahead.”

He variously impressed, challenged, enlightened, frustrated and amused his students at Yale. “He was a very powerful man. Somewhere [inside] you felt he was a great man—and in his own way tyrannical,” intones a former student in a short companion film to the exhibit. “He was not a good listener at all,” says another. Adds another: “He was a very great showman… he would get up on top of a table and make a point.” And another: “Albers was a very playful teacher. He had a sense of humor. He had a temper, too.” And another: “He always brought in a critic from New York who was the opposite of him. Albers seemed to understand that there were some students who needed this other thing.” And another: “You really did learn.”

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By count of works alone, Albers’s students figure more heavily into the exhibit than Albers himself. Officially, they have 60 pieces in the show—most if not all of them encased in the middle of the gallery’s main room—to his 18 paintings, prints, drawings and studies hung up on the surrounding walls. The 60 student works were “classroom prompts,” organizers say; Albers would give his students a task, and they’d set about doing it within a limited time frame. One particularly vivacious section of prompts is classified under “color studies”; another under “basic shapes;” and another under “basic drawing.” Showing range, Albers actually taught Basic Drawing, a core introductory course at the school involving representational—in that sense, anti-modernist—curriculum elements. But even here, notes the placard, resting not far from a student’s impressively realistic depiction of an umbrella, Albers left a modernist mark: “In both the abstract and representational exercises, structure was central: skeletal axes, reversals, repetitions and extensions abound.”

Alongside Albers’s stand-alone works on 32 Edgewood’s walls are excerpted pages from Interaction of Color (1963), an incalculably influential book Albers put together after retiring from his full-time teaching position at Yale. Unexpectedly, it became a seminal contribution to the academic literature and, as of 2013, the primary subject of its own iPad app. It contains gorgeous demonstrative color studies from various sources, including Albers’s students.

One of them, Carol Sirot, now a Guilford resident who remarks, by all indications rightly, that Interaction became “the foremost book on color in the world,” happened to attend the exhibit yesterday at the same time I was there. Sirot says she was an unusual case: she had an undergraduate art degree and an arts teaching fellowship at Oberlin under her belt, but she wasn’t a Yale enrollee. Instead she was a “special student,” made possible because she was married to a member of Yale’s faculty, and because Albers liked her work when she applied to study with him. That resulted in an independent study-style arrangement. “I had to meet with Albers, show him my work and meet his approval.” She remembers one piece that didn’t quite get there. “He teased me about it afterwards… It was a sculpture of a woman done in wads and pellets on an armature. But because it represented a woman, it was, as far as he was concerned, part of a lower caste of things… Not because of the fact that she was female, but because it was representation.”

“I saw him differently because I didn’t need a grade,” she says. “The [regular] students saw him as either a tyrant—because he was a perfectionist and he was demanding of them—or as a genius.” She falls into the latter camp. “I thought he was a fantastic teacher… He taught us to see.”

“Search Versus Re-Search”: Josef Albers, Artist and Educator
at 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery
32 Edgewood Ave, New Haven (map)
Noon-6pm Tues-Sun
(203) 432-2600
www.art.yale.edu/32EdgewoodAveGallery

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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