Josef Albers - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I think a good dealer is also a collector.”
    —Rosa Esman

    Rosa and Aaron Esman assembled an outstanding collection of Modern, Post-War, and Contemporary art over the course of their seventy-year marriage. The collection’s highlights mirror that of Rosa’s career as a gallerist and edition publisher with the strong support of Aaron, a psychoanalyst and passionate collector, with interests in Modernism, Dada, Russian Constructivism, and American Pop Art taking center stage. Rosa began publishing portfolios of prints by contemporary artists in the 1960s. Editions such as the New York Ten Portfolio, 1965, and Ten from Leo Castelli, 1967, which featured works by rising contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg, and helped pioneer the field of artist’s editions and multiples. Her eponymous gallery exhibited in Manhattan for over twenty years, and she was a founding partner of Ubu Gallery, which is still in operation today.


    When asked about her wide artistic tastes in 2009, Rosa emphasized her love of drawing, “the
    quintessential bit of the art,” which can be seen across the Esman collection, regardless of genre.

    Art was one of several passions that Rosa and Aaron shared, even when they began dating in the early 1950s. In 1952, they bought their first artwork together, a drawing by Miró, initiating their shared pursuit of inspired collecting that would continue for the rest of their lives. Rosa recalled: “sometimes we look at something, and I say, ‘Oh, isn’t that marvelous?’ and Aaron would respond, ‘It’s for us.’”i Founded in lifelong love, the Collection of Rosa and Aaron Esman gives a unique vision of the art movements of the 20th century that shaped New York’s art scene.


    Rosa and Aaron Esman in Madrid, 1963


     “A strong yellow… has a magnificent and noble effect… the eye is gladdened, the heart expands, the feelings are cheered, an immediate warmth seems to waft toward us.”
    —Goethe, Theory of Color, 1810

    Josef Albers’ Study for Homage to the Square: Bright, 1962, consists of four nested squares of yellow, goldenrod, tangerine, and orange, keyed toward the bottom of the picture plane, which encapsulate the artist’s rigorous pursuit of color, composition, and balance in the field of painting. Begun around 1950 during his tenure as a visual arts instructor at the innovative Black Mountain School outside of Asheville, North Carolina, Albers worked on the series for over 25 years until the end of his life.


    Josef Albers in his studio, August 1960. Image/Artwork: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 


    Born of Bauhaus principles of harmony and utility in art, the Homage series simplifies form and composition in order to best explore the optical interaction of color on the picture plane. This selective simplification is standard Modernist practice, as seen in Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1915, but there is a conceptual basis to the work as well, similar to Frank Stella’s concentric square paintings of the 1960s. Study for Homage to the Square: Bright bridges Modernism and conceptualism, functioning as a throughline of painterly investigation in the 20th century.


    Frank Stella, Gran Cairo, 1962. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Image: © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2023 ARS, NY 


    Albers was a formidable academic presence in the theory of 20th century art, and his precision and systematic intensity come across in the formal rigor of his Homage series. Each work in the series, Study for Homage to the Square: Bright included, has the technical details of the composition carefully recorded on the reverse, like lab notes to a science experiment. The present work lists his process, from the ground of “7 coats of Liquitex” primer, to the final polymer varnish. Albers began each work with the center square, and painted each seemingly-overlapping outer square separately. He never mixed paint—instead, as he wrote on the reverse of Study for Homage to the Square: Bright, he applied it “all in one primary coat” and “all directly from the tube,” using small, unobtrusive marks in order to keep each band of color pure.ii The Masonite ground of each Homage underscores the flatness of the painted surface, keeping interest bound to the interaction of adjacent colors.



    A detail of the reverse of the painting. 



    The Homage series interrogates how variations in tone, hue, saturation, and brightness affect our perceptions of color. The color yellow is present in all four bands of Study for Homage to the Square: Bright; as Albers’ notes on the verso of the work show, each colored band derives its pigment from compounds of cadmium. Working from the center outward, as transcribed by the artist, there is “Cadmium Orange, Pure Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Yellow Light,” and “Pure Cadmium Yellow Pale.”iii The chemical interrelatedness of these pigments mirrors their visual relationship on the picture plane; per Albers, the “choice of the colors used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction.”iv


    “Look! The color orange is at the door and says to the yellow, ‘You go first.’ But the yellow is also polite and says, ‘No, you go first.’ They are like good friends and their conversation is very charming.”
    —Josef Albers

    The color yellow held particular resonance for Albers—he once stated that he “was for years in the yellow period,” and saw the color as caring, curing, and uplifting.v These notions are surely inspired both by Goethe’s 1810 treatise, Theory of Color, and the natural associations of the color to sunlight, blossoming flowers, and glowing fires. Indeed, Study for Homage to the Square: Bright, seems to evoke the solar association most of all—not only by its poetic subtitle, Bright, but formally, as well. The center orange square radiates out into the bands of tangerine, goldenrod and yellow, a perfect, Modernist sunrise.



    Rosa Esman, interviewed by James McElhinney, "Oral History Interview with Rosa Esman," Archives of American Art, June 9–16, 2009, online.

     ii“Josef Albers on his Homage to the Square,” Audio guide transcript, Solomon R. Gugghenheim Museum, New York, Nov. 30, 2017, online.

    iii Artist’s strikethrough, see reverse of work.

    iv Josef Albers, quoted in “Josef Albers on his Homage to the Square.”

    v Josef Albers, quoted in “Oral history interview with Josef Albers, 1968 June 22-July 5,” transcript, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington DC, online.

    • Provenance

      Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
      Rosa and Aaron Esman (acquired from the above on October 14, 1963)
      Thence by descent to the present owners

Property from the Collection of Rosa and Aaron Esman


Study for Homage to the Square: Bright

incised with the artist’s monogram and date “A 62” lower right; signed, titled, inscribed and dated "Study for Homage to the Square: "Bright" Albers' 1962" on the reverse
oil on Masonite
24 x 24 in. (61 x 61 cm)
Painted in 1962.

This work will be included in the Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings by Josef Albers currently being prepared by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation under number 1962.1.58.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $844,550

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan

Specialist, Head of Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023