Josef Albers Explores Mexico

Anni Albers’s portrait of Josef Albers, Mitla, Mexico, 1935-39, © 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The late German-American artist Josef Albers is best known for his modernist, minimalist abstract paintings blending sharp geometric patterns with intense colors. But his visual inspiration for these works often stemmed from his artful black-and-white photographs of scenes he found in architecture and nature during his world travels (his wife Anni’s 1935-36 portrait of Albers in Mitla, Mexico is above). This creative symbiosis underlies Josef Albers in Mexico, a revelatory exhibit at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum through March 28.

Albers photograph

Josef Albers, Untitled (Mitla, Mexico), 1956, © 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

Although Albers did not exhibit his photographs formally or create a great deal of large-scale prints, he was a prolific photographer during his frequent trips to Mexico. The exhibit’s contact sheets reveal his obsessive attention to compositional detail as he documented ancient architectural forms, such as the carved details in the Zapotec Ruins of Mitla, Oaxaca (above). Albers often studied and photographed such patterns from dozens of different angles, later incorporating them into his abstracted paintings.

Josef Albers, To Mitla, 1940, © 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

Josef Albers, “To Mitla,” 1940, © 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

Installation view: Josef Albers in Mexico, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Photo: © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017

Installation view: Josef Albers in Mexico; Photo: © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017

The exhibition does a marvelous job of juxtaposing Albers’s photographic studies with the corresponding series of paintings, as in the above installation view of his “To Mitla” (top) shown alongside images he shot on location. Many other ancient architectural sites such as the Great Pyramid of Tenayuca (below) find their way into Albers’s nonrepresentational art—demonstrating that the man who seemingly made a career out of his Homage to the Square series actually embarked on and drew from numerous, mysterious geometric explorations.

Josef Albers, Untitled (Great Pyramid, Tenayuca, Mexico), ca. 1940, © 2016 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society

Josef Albers, Untitled (Great Pyramid, Tenayuca, Mexico), ca. 1940, © 2016 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society