Josef Albers’ legacy explored in new Mead Art Museum show

Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2015

New Mead Art Museum director David Little says he’s interested in staging exhibits that look at the intersection of art with different disciplines — science, music, media studies and other fields.

As it turns out, he’s arrived just as the Amherst College museum has opened exactly such a show.

“Intersecting Colors: Josef Albers and his Contemporaries” takes a close look at the work of Josef Albers, a German-born painter, printmaker and educator whose ideas about visual perception made him one the art world’s most influential teachers in the mid-20th century. The exhibit, based on varied works — paintings, prints, glass art — from the Mead’s collection and from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut, includes a number of pieces that have never been publicly displayed.

Exhibit curator Vanja Malloy, the Mead’s curator of American Art, says Albers’ work cuts across a number of disciplines. Though trained as a painter, Albers, born in 1888, also worked in design, at one point crafting stained-glass windows for churches; he later became a professor of design at the Bauhaus School, a leading German institute for contemporary art, architecture and design that was shut down by the Nazis in 1933.

Albers immigrated to the Unites States that year and began teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, then, in 1950, moved on to Yale University, where he headed the Department of Design for eight years. At both schools, Malloy says, he brought into play ideas about color and the science behind visual perception that had a big influence on art education.

“He’s probably most well known for his statement that color is the most relative medium in art,” Malloy said. “He developed a lot of ways of showing how colors can be perceived differently simply by being placed against one another.”

The exhibit’s works range from a 1931 abstract design, “Steps,” made on sandblasted opaque flashed glass, to a number of pieces Albers did in the years right shortly his death in 1976, such as “Rolled Wrong,” a 1972 screenprint. Both of these works showcase another area of Albers’ interest in visual perception: ambiguous shapes that can be interpreted in different ways, depending on where the eye focuses.

Also included in the exhibit are examples from his “Homage to the Square” series, an extensive collection of paintings and prints he began around 1950 that examined visual and chromatic interactions between three or four nesting squares of solid color. The paintings were usually done on masonite, with precise dimensions. For these, Albers used a palette knife to apply paint right out of the tube, with no barriers between the different colors.

Malloy notes that Albers’ work was also influenced by advances in neuroscience — particularly on how the brain interprets colors — and psychology in the earlier decades of the 20th century. He was especially interested in the Gesalt school of psychology, which holds that people’s perceptions are based on a combination of complex interactions with different stimuli.

“There were a lot of different elements to his work,” said Malloy, who points out that Albers’ work also influenced the Op Art movement of the late 1950s/early 1960s, which explored optical illusions and ambiguous figures. The exhibit includes examples of that work by artists, such as Richard Anuszkiewicz, who had been students of Albers.

There’s also a copy of “Interactions of Color,” his seminal 1963 book on color perception that became highly sought because only 2,000 copies were initially printed. It’s since been republished as a cellphone app. Visitors to the exhibit can also use an onsite iPad to scroll through the show’s catalog, published by Amherst College Press.

Although the exhibit does not go into detail about Albers’ life in the United States, viewers can glean one impression he had from the notes he wrote about one of his earlier U.S. works, “Leaf Study I,” from 1940, for which he pasted a number of leaves onto a backdrop of colored paper.

The artist wrote that the “tints and shades” found in America’s autumn foliage were incomparably rich, providing “a most welcome enhancement of any color paper collection.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Intersecting Colors: Josepf Albers and His Contemporaries” is on view at the Mead Art Museum through Jan. 3, 2016. Museum hours are Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to midnight; Fridays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Admission is free. For information, visit


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