BY MIN CHEN
Begun in 1950, Josef Albers’ series Homage to The Square was a decades-spanning study in illusion. On these canvases, several squares are nestled within one another, each richly and evenly painted in a different color. In some are subtle gradations of blue and yellow, in others are contrasts, such as a mauve butting up against a mustard yellow, and interactions, like a lush green dissolving into black. Depending on Albers’ choice of hues, the forms appeared to be either receding away or advancing toward the viewer—a perceptual play that emerged from the artist’s pioneering color theories and Bauhaus-taught geometric abstraction.
At this point in the early ‘50s, the German-born Albers had just joined the Yale faculty, following stints teaching at Staatliches Bauhaus (he was the first student invited to be a part of the faculty) and leading the painting program at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he worked alongside his wife Anni and launched the first color curriculum in American art education. His eight years at Yale were spent teaching a course titled Basic Design, a framework that perfectly encapsulated his tightly disciplined approach to method and medium. “To design is to plan and to organize, to order, to relate and to control,” he wrote in 1958’s Poems and Drawings. “In short it embraces all means of opposing disorder and accident.”
Order, color, and geometry were hallmarks of Albers’ Square paintings, and between 1959 and 1961, of the playful album sleeves he designed for Command Records. Founded by orchestra bandleader Enoch Light, the label was committed to recordings of top-notch quality and stereoscopic sound pristine enough please even the hardiest of purists. Light’s insistence on sonic sophistication extended onto the sleeves of his releases (which contained such an abundance of personnel detail and technical description that he inadvertently originated the gatefold sleeve). To this end, he hired Charles E. Murphy as art director, who in turn, reached out to his one-time Yale professor.
Over two years, Albers would produce seven album covers—his rare venture into commercial art—for five volumes of Command’s Provocative Percussion and Persuasive Percussion light jazz series, as well as the classical pressings, Magnificent Two-Piano Performances by Leonid Hambro and Jascha Zayde, and Mussorgsky – Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition.
His covers were modern and minimal designs that played to his strengths. Squares and circles, those most basic of geometric forms, served as abstracted stand-ins for the instruments featured on the albums, and were arrayed, arranged, and assembled in manners that intimate movement and suggest syncopation—hence, serving as visual parallels to the albums’ swing and tempos. The order here was loose, but no less, there was order that dictated balance and flow. Besides summoning his Bauhaus training for the designs’ stark and direct communication, Albers here deployed gestalt perception, toying with groupings and proximity, alternately connecting and separating the individual elements and the whole.
For a color theorist, though, his record covers were lean on hues. Save for Persuasive Percussion Volume 3, which employed frisky pops of blue, and Provocative Percussion Vol. III and the classical platters, which offered more somber displays of midnight blues shadowed by broad swathes of black—Albers’ Command designs are largely monochromatic affairs. Again, they served gestalt functions, but also, avoided taxing the covers with the kind of pigments and richness that the albums’ grooves already contain.
At a glance, these sleeves are pictures of restraint and order. As Albers once put it, “I’m not a talker, I’m a formulator.” Then again, he formulated no static artifacts, but graphical works that depict and convey movement and gesture. Provocative Percussion Vol. III, in particular, with its curtain of blue and white dots, was veritably animated by its composition and duo tones. Albers also once emphasized how circles are tricky things to begin with. “A circle always fools me by not telling me whether it’s standing still or not,” he told oral historian Sevim Fesci in 1968. “If a circle circulates, you don’t see it.”
As far removed from the op art or three-dimensional art that followed him, Albers’ visual illusions didn’t require much to stun and amuse perceptions. For all we know, the circles and tilted squares on his Command covers, however flatly printed, could be spinning, dancing, vibrating, and in constant, relentless motion. And in fact, it’d be surprising if they aren’t.