Josiah McElheny on Josef Albers

Josiah McElheny is a great contemporary artist and thinker. His latest contribution to Artforum elegantly sums up some of my thoughts about art experiences; that art, too, is a visual as well as cognitive experience.

Surprisingly, though, [Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color] is not really a pedagogical treatise on the modernist use of color. Instead, it is an argument against color systems of all types: It proposes a practice of looking at and working with color that understands it to be constantly in flux. The reader, attentively going back and forth between text and image, is confronted by disturbingly mutable visual and cognitive experience, by the deep instability of color….

[Albers wrote:] “By giving up preference for harmony, we accept dissonance to be as desirable as consonance.

…”[P]references and dislikes—as in life so with color—usually result from prejudices, from lack of experience and insight.”

…[Albers] argues that perception is contextual; he wants to encourage ‘thinking in situations.’ When he says that ‘interaction’ can be restated as ‘interdependence,’ he implies that what color is is defined by where, when, and how it is—otherwise it is relegated to the abstract, symbolic, theoretical….

In our active, physical engagement with [Alber’s color] tests, we are made aware of the slippery nature of looking—even identifying simple difference is fraught—an experience recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games.

—Josiah McElheny, “The Spectrum of Possibility.” Book review of Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color: New Complete Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Artforum. April 2010. p. 55.


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