From the summer of 1949 until his death in 1976, Albers worked on a series of paintings called 'Homage to the square', in which he set out to explore the interaction of colours in a regular format. In these paintings, as also expounded in his teaching and in his book The Interaction of Colour (Yale, 1963), Albers sought to demonstrate that colour is an entirely relative phenomenon; colours change constantly according to their juxtaposition and relationship with other colours. Each of the paintings in the 'Homage to the square' series is based on an arrangement of squares stacked on inside the other, evenly placed on a horizontal axis and disposed with a bias to the bottom of the composition on the vertical axis. Four different formats exist. Format A, as it is sometimes known, has four squares. Study for Homage to the square is an example of this. The other formats have only three squares, one of the internal squares being omitted to permit greater quantities of a particular colour in the arrangement. In format B the largest of the internal squares has been dispensed with, as in Homage to the square: on an early sky 1964. Formats C and D omit the intermediate and smallest squares respectively. Albers produced works in this series by first making small colour sketches which he then enlarged to a painting of 24 x 24" (60.9 x 60.9 cm) (such as Study for homage to the square), 30 x 30" (76.2 x 76.2 cm) or 32 x 32" (96.0 x 96.0 cm). These, according to Albers, were made:
to find out whether an increase of the outer scale and consequently of the inner quantities, will increase the interaction of the colors used, which for a precise record are always listed on the back of the masonite panels. (I prefer them to canvas as more durable and more wall-like) … As to the term 'Study for Homage to the Square', the stepping-up in size often demands intervals of time — sometimes through years — for continued and repeated observation as to possible improvements, intensification. All preparatory studies up to the largest and last execution — the 'widest stage of performance' — I call 'Studies' which term is not used for the sizes of 40"2 and 48"2 (the latter is the largest square available in masonite.).1
This is the size of Homage to the square: on an early sky 1964.
In Homage to the square: on an early sky the contrasts of colour are unusually intense, the light red of the middle square barely mediating between the incandescent cadmium red of the internal square and the expanse of cerulean blue. Albers only subtitled some of his works and only after they were completed. Yet such subtitles as On an early sky, with its naturalistic connotations, is revealing of Albers' sense of the lyrical power of colour and distances him from the more formal experiments of the Minimalists with whom he is often now associated as a precursor.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.282.
- Josef Albers, correspondence with the Tate Gallery, 16 May 1966, cited in Ronald Alley, The Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than works by British Artists, London: Tate Gallery, 1981, p.5.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010