Josef Albers - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “…colour, as the most relative medium in art, has innumerable faces or appearances. To study them in their respective interactions, in their interdependence, will enrich our 'seeing,' our world—and ourselves.”
    —Josef Albers

    In his most iconic and immediately recognisable series, Homage to the Square, Josef Albers secured his reputation as an early pioneer of abstract minimalism, and one of the leading colour theorists of his generation. Nesting squares of differently hued colour one inside the other in a geometric arrangement, Albers developed a format for investigating colour relationships, varying tones and chromatic intensity to explore different optical and psychological effects. Combining both the so-called ‘factual’ and ‘actual’ aspects of colour – which is to say both the fixed aspects of isolated colour and its more fluid and relative experience of colour in context – the rigid geometry of the Homage amplified interactions between rhythm and space, moving beyond the material reality of the artwork and complicating our understanding of the relationships between artist, artwork, and audience.


    Coming to auction for the first time, the present work is an exceptionally rare example from this iconic series, one of only 74 paintings in which Albers altered the restrictions of the superimposed square format in order to more fully explore the visual sensations produced by certain chromatic relationships. Executed in luminous bands of yellow, gold and ochre tones, the present work emphasises the fundamentally explorative and investigative nature of the series, and of Albers’ deeply sensitive approach to colour and abstraction.


    Josef Albers at his studio in 1960. Image: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / DACS 2023

    Living in Squares


    Albers started working on this series in 1950 and would continue until his death, producing approximately 2,200 Homage to the Square paintings during this time. Within this vast body of work, the mathematically determined format typically involved the presentation of several, superimposed squares which appear to sit or float one on top of the other. Rendered in unmixed oil paint, squeezed directly from the tube and expertly applied to the reverse of a Masonite board with a palette knife, Albers effectively avoided the ‘expressive’ brushstroke and minimised the presence of the artist’s hand in the work. And yet, these smooth, flat planes of colour are anything but static, appearing instead to move forward or recede depending on the manner in which they interact with the surrounding hues. As the artist described, ‘Seeing several of these paintings next to each other makes it obvious that each painting is an instrumentation in its own. This means that they are all of different palettes, and, therefore, so to speak, of different climates. Choice of the colours used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction.’i Dropping the central square down to the lower edge of the composition, Albers further activated the interactions between the bands of colour, encouraging the eye to register a simultaneous movement outward from the centre and upward from the lower edge.


    Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1956-62, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston / gift of Anni Albers and the Josef Albers Foundation, Inc. / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / DACS 2023


    In 1957, Albers began experimenting with the limitations of his square format, adjusting the more strictly delineated geometry which generated consistent, uninterrupted bands of colour. Exceedingly rare and important works, these adapted pieces emphasise the extent to which Albers conceptualised the Homage series not simply of artworks in their own right, but as an instrument for exploring what, for Albers, was the defining aspect of painting itself – ‘colour acting’.ii Instead of the typical uninterrupted outer margin here, Albers interposed a lighter band of pale yellow at the upper and lower edge, where to the left and right edges, truncated bands of golden amber react against the tawny margin of the smaller square. The overall effect is compositionally and optically more complex, the warmer golden and saffron tones of the central squares appearing to project outwards towards the viewer, its progress unexpectedly interrupted by the framing device of the contrasting outer margins. Furthermore, while Albers would typically render his squares on a white ground to amplify their colour contracts, in this example the artist goes even further in his experiments, exploring ideas of transparency and spatial effects by painting the central square directly over the deep saffron tones of the square beneath it.


    Colour Theory and The Bauhaus School


    Producing a more intense visual sensation in its viewers, this 1962 work represents the culmination of Albers’ career-long fascination with the active qualities of colour, capturing the scope and ambition of his project as both an artist and educator. As a European émigré travelling to America to escape persecution during the turbulent years of the Second Word War, Albers was one of a group of artists and intellectuals who brought early 20th century European modernism to the United States, energising and expanding the conversations that a new generation of artists were starting. As an esteemed faculty member of the Black Mountain Collage and Yale University, Albers' influence in this respect was hugely significant, with figures such Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Eva Hesse counted amongst his students.

    “In visual perception a colour is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is. This fact makes colour the most relative medium in art. In order to use colour effectively it is necessary to recognise that colour deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of colour systems.”
    —Josef Albers

    Although Albers started the Homage series in 1950 – the year that he and his wife the artist Anni Albers relocated to New Haven – the conceptual roots of the series reach right back to his earliest experiments with the visual and psychological effects of colour and light, and to his introduction to colour theory as a student at the newly opened Bauhaus school in Weimar in 1920. Founded by the architect Walter Gropius on the desire for a radical rethinking of the traditional divisions between the so-called ‘fine’ and ‘applied’ arts, the school levelled perceived hierarchies between painting and design, with the study of colour making up an important and integral part of the teaching program, forming the basis of the foundation course or Vorkus lead by Johannes Itten. Bearing close similarities to the principles of Albers’ Homage and their importance as pedagogical tools, Itten would instruct students in the principles of colour theory with the use of a ‘colour star’ that he created in 1921 in a reinterpretation of more traditional colour wheels. Flattening the sphere to enable students to more completely grasp the relationships between primary, secondary, and tertiary colours and the principles of their combinations on a single plane, Itten’s colour star demonstrated the expansive possibilities of ‘the kingdom of colours’ which, as he theorised, ‘has within it multidimensional possibilities […] Each individual colour is a universe in itself.’iii


    The first student to be offered a place on the faculty, Albers continued to develop these ideas as both an artist and teacher, first in Europe and later in the United States. Albers minimal and systematic approach would go on to influence a generation of artists working in the 1960s such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella, whose own concentric squares diverge from Albers in conceptual terms, while emphasising the shape’s symmetrical and graphically simple qualities which proved to be so fundamental to the development of abstraction. Similarly, while Mark Rothko’s emotionally charged canvases turn to colour’s more expressive and affective qualities, they nevertheless record the influence of Albers more systematic approach to colour contrasts, and the bridge that his work forged between the currents of an early 20th century European avant-garde with mid-century American modernism.


    Mark Rothko, Red, Orange, Orange on Red, 1962, Saint Louis Museum of Art, Missouri. Image: © Saint Louis Art Museum / Funds given by the Shoenberg Foundation, Inc. / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / DACS 2023


    Josef Albers: The Magic of Colour | David Zwirner


    Collector’s Digest


    • Between 1950 and his death in 1976, Josef Albers created some 2,200 works related to his Hommage to the Square series. Immediately recognisable, works from this series are held in major collections all around the world and were first featured in a major touring exhibition organised by The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964, which travelled to 22 venues in the United States and Latin America.

    • One of 74 works within the series, the present work pushes against the geometric restrictions that govern the series in a more radical fashion.

    • In 1971, Albers became the first living artist to be honoured with a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 2016, representation of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation passed to David Zwirner Gallery, followed by a series of global exhibitions (Zwirner; Guggenheim) and record prices for the artist at auction (over 2 million GBP in 2017).



    i Josef Albers, quoted in Josef Albers, exh. cat., The Mayor Gallery, London, 1989, p. 31.

    ii Josef Albers, in Josef Albers: Formulation Articulation, London, 2006, p. 29.

    iii Johannes Itten, The Art of Colour, New York, 1961, p. 117.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the Artist
      Josef Albers Foundation, Bethany
      Galerie Denise René, Paris
      Private collection, Japan
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Madrid, Galería Theo, Josef Albers: Obras 1955-1973, November – December 1987, no. 15, n.p. (illustrated, n.p.)


Homage to the Square

incised with the artist’s monogram and date ‘A 62’ lower right; inscribed on the reverse
oil on Masonite
76.2 x 76.2 cm (30 x 30 in.)
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 1976.1.712.

Full Cataloguing

£200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £609,600

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023