The Different Sides of Abstraction

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Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1962. Oil on Masonite, 24 x 24 inches (61 x 61 cm). © 2016 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joseph Albers is considered to be one of the most influential painters in the abstract movement in art within the twentieth century while also being an important designer and educator most noted for his rigorous experimental approach to color theory and relationships between different spatial planes in art. In fact, the title of this piece was taken from a passage in his book Interaction of Color, which was written in 1963. Within this text, Albers chronicled his studies in chromatic interaction, in which the visual perception of a color is affected by those adjacent to it.

If this concept sounds familiar, that is because it might seem like an idea that was explored by Mark Rothko in works such as Number 14. However, while they might be aesthetically similar—especially since they both worked in the realm of the abstract—their motivations for creating these pieces could not be more polar opposite to each other. Rothko used the abstraction within his pieces to express human emotion, and he even went so far to say that the viewers who broke down and wept before his paintings had had the same religious experience he had when creating his paintings.

That isn’t to say that these two artists should be viewed in completely opposite lights. Rather, it would be better to view them as two sides to the same coin, or even as the different hemispheres of the conceptual brain that covers the idea of abstraction. Albers represents the left side of this brain: the logic, the science, and the mathematics. He relied on theories to bring his points across and did so splendidly. Rothko, on the other hand, represents his opposite by relying on emotion and raw creativity to bring his message across.

Since it’s so easy to separate logic from emotion and vice versa, it isn’t out of the question to view these artists in opposing lights, but when viewed under the same spectrum—that spectrum being abstraction—it creates a much broader image with so many more possibilities that can be explored.

–Amy LaPointe

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