Josef Albers – The Interplay of Color

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square in Green Frame, 1963


Commentary on the book by the German painter and design.

“To repeat: our aim is not knowledge, its application: but flexible imagination, discovery, invention – taste”, writes Josef Albers. And it's curious that a study of the interaction of colors results in these observations about imagination and taste. How to theorize about the visual experience that is always subject to mutations? “This book, therefore, does not follow an academic conception of 'theory and practice'. It inverts that order and puts practice before theory, which, after all, is the conclusion of practice”, he continues.

Already at the beginning of the XNUMXth century JW Goethe sought the same approach to the chromatic phenomenon when making a Color theory (Color Doctrine), instead of a Theorie, that is, a practical rather than exclusively theoretical learning. In both books the examples become tedious for those who stick to the letter: it is necessary to know how to experience the proposed experiments.

German art schools have always had a vocation for practical work, and the most striking example is undoubtedly the Bauhaus, of which Albers was a part, and which until today remains a reference in architecture and design. Albers took this formation with him to the USA after the closure of Bauhaus by the Nazis. Several young American artists, such as Rauschenberg, were influenced by it – even when they questioned it – while studying at the Black mountain college. Upon being called to Yale University, he remains until his retirement at School of Arts. It was in this environment that Albers prepared the book on the interaction of colors. His impact was enormous in the world of visual arts. Today we can see an artist like Peter Halley teaching courses on color at Yale. But it is worth returning to the initial question, how to teach how to use color?

There is no right formula, only experiments that can help the art student to see color more accurately: its variations in contrast, transparency, luminosity and saturation. Unlike scientific research in laboratories, in this case the subject is placed as an object of study: “Considering that we basically start from the material, the color itself, its actions and interactions as our mind registers them, our practice concerns, first and foremost, to a study of ourselves.”

A new way of approaching colors from the observer's point of view thus appears. Goethe's famous polemic against Newton is due to the poet's refusal of the scientific expedient; when looking through the prisms, he does not see the refraction of light according to Newtonian theory. Goethe, when talking about colors, always oscillated between two languages, as if one was never capable of fully accounting for chromatic phenomena. This is because colors can be seen both from a physical point of view, as well as from an artistic and poetic point of view.

A study restricted to technical procedures is disappointing, as it falls short of theoretical studies on art most of the time. The observations that arise from the practice of painting cannot be reduced to a school primer, especially in a time when the transmission of the secrets of the old masters loses its meaning. Modern art forced the artist to refine his technique in a solitary way, even when he openly assumes certain influences.

In fact, the use of certain materials to the detriment of others always reveals a choice, an artist's posture in relation to the world. The color tables present both in books by JW Goethe, Johannes Itten and Josef Albers are fascinating at first sight. But soon after the immediate impact, we have the feeling of an enormous emptiness contained behind such beautiful hues. Because they claim to be more “objective”, they are somehow also sterile. Just compare them with Paul Klee's watercolors to see how devoid of life they are.

Albers and Itten point out in the introduction to their texts that the study of color is just an instrument that by itself does not make a student an artist. Itten goes so far as to say that “doctrines and theories are best suited for situations of weakness. In situations of force, problems are solved intuitively”. That is, although useful for students, they are of little use to the artist. Itten tells us that we should use his study as a carriage, a means of transportation to develop each one's work. But it is essential to be able to free yourself from this mechanical game between color contrasts.

The artist, who plays with freedom, can use them however he wants, but the student is always liable to get lost among the chromatic nuances. Colors can be interpreted in the most varied ways, in fact, the more we study them, the more we have the feeling of distancing ourselves from them. They allow for multiple, often antagonistic, interpretations and seem to resist a one-sided approach. It is very difficult to conceive of the chromatic phenomenon without referring to the specific use that each artist makes within his work.

However, the way of using colors is also related to an aesthetic movement of a certain time. The colors infiltrate in a sinuous way in our gaze, in the windows, in the objects, in the customs. Understanding color nowadays means taking different points of view. We do not actually have a single criterion for describing them. When looking for an expressive quality in color, it is first of all necessary to learn to place oneself in the present time, to believe that the artist still has something to say about his experience in the world. His observations, therefore, do not aim to capture color as a phenomenon in itself, but rather as a possible means of expression.

Albers knew exactly the limited scope of his experiments, when he said that “no system by itself is capable of developing sensitivity to color”. Although his experiences serve as a practical introduction to becoming familiar with chromatic ambiguities, the interaction between colors is only effective through the use of our imagination.

However, for Wittgenstein, phenomenological problems persist in spite of a phenomenological theory. in your Notes about the colors the philosopher states that it is not possible to establish a single theory about chromatic phenomena.

In this sense, works such as The color interaction de Albers remains an obligatory reference in color studies. To understand this book you need taste and, above all, imagination.

*Marco Giannotti, visual artist, he is a professor at the Department of Plastic Arts at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of Brief history of modern painting (Clarity)

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 3, July 2009.


Joseph Albers. The color interaction. WMF Martins Fontes, 192 pages (

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