Squares x squares = squares squared? Now THAT'S what I call an homage to the square. At Sotheby's last week, Josef Albers' famous series, "Homage to the Square," in 1963, 1957, 1963, and 1966 (clockwise from top left).

My personal, beloved favorite is the bottom left, Homage to the Square: Soft Signal. Homage to the Square, Joseph Albers’ seminal series, is a tribute to the power of repetition. In each painting, Albers methodically replicates his squares within squares, purifying his practice to only the slightest variations in size and color. Despite the constancy of Albers’ form, however, the artist does not intend for the viewer of his paintings to experience stasis. In an essay titled “The Colour in My Painting,” Albers declared, “Such color deceptions prove that we see colors almost never unrelated to each other and therefore unchanged; that color is changing continually: with changing light, with changing shape and placement, and with quantity.” (Albers in Getulio Alviani, Josef Albers, Milan, 1998, p. 104) By minimizing any variation in space, form, or shape, Albers focuses the viewer’s entire experience upon one, powerful factor: the infinite variability of color.

Few artists have exhibited such a steadfast fascination with color as Albers. As a result, Albers has remained one of the most important contributors to the field of color theory in the years since the 1960’s. His text Interaction of Color, first printed by Yale University Press in 1963, has sold over a quarter of a million copies and is as essential today as it was when it was published. The artist’s obsession with mastering color theory stemmed, it seems, from a desire to control color’s infinite effects. Albers remarked, “Color is the most relative medium in the world. I can kill the most brilliant red by putting it with violet. I can make the dullest gray in the world dance by putting it against a black. I can do as I please with color. It behaves as I mean it to. I know where I am going, and I am the man in charge.” The Homage to the Square series is the result of Albers’ deep-seated desire to control his art by choosing exactly how his paintings—and the colors within them--will behave.

In Homage to the Square: Soft Signal, Albers masterfully manipulates and wields shades of a vibrant, arresting red. Within the strict boundaries of the square, the viewer is entirely subject to the experience that Albers constructs through his precise understanding of color. The rich shades of red appear layered in space, commanding the viewer to position themselves in relation to the flat plane. Although the center of the work is dominated by the lush, deep crimson of the central square, the eye is soon drawn outward by the softer, rosier shades that embrace that crimson. Albers’ desire for control is tangible in the precise intervals of the squares and the perfect alignment of their neat corners with the frame. This order and stability, however, is contrasted by the movement of the red, which shifts as the squares pulsate out. The darkest, richest scarlet recedes from the picture plane, while the lighter shades float up towards it, creating a tidal sensation that engulfs the viewer, then gently pushes them back.

Despite the apparent order and constancy of the Homage to the Square series, Albers’ mastery of color allows him to create paintings that are constantly shifting, evolving, and moving before the viewer. Thus, as the viewer stands in front of Homage to the Square: Soft Signal, they enter a space that is entirely unique – a space created, and controlled, by Albers himself. 

Kelsey Leonard