Albers and Moholy-Nagy, From the Bauhaus to the New World, Tate Modern

Exhibition held in Spring 2006

Inspired by the Bauhaus and by the relentless development of the early twentieth century, Joseph Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy were extraordinary visual innovators, continually rearranging abstract forms through a bewildering range of media. The wide variety of material on which these artists depicted their generous family of shapes – shapes such as circles, twists, blocks and orbs – document not only modernist invention, but stand as a virtual timeline of industrial innovation; as each material was developed – aluminium, perspex, sandblasted glass – so Albers and Moholy-Nagy jumped on it and turned it towards their own visual needs.

Josef Albers, Structural Constellation, Transformation of a Scheme No.12, 1950, Tate Modern.

But innovation is not quite a guarantee of artistic quality. Many of the modernist branches they followed may have initially appeared interesting but soon appeared to be dead ends. To an extent, Albers’ experimentation counted against him – he tried so many different routes that it is hardly a surprise that some of them would turn out to be false paths. For example, the works done with sandblasted glass or the later Structural Constellations created from engraved Vinylite. Initially impressive, above all because of their smooth jet-like finish, they soon become lifeless objects, rearranged according to the same formula. The initial idea is appealing but there is little to sustain the variations – you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. As visual designs they are interesting (like many of Albers’ works they would make for affecting album covers) but as artworks their sustained repetition brings little beyond the original conception.

In actual fact, it was Albers’ stated desire to move art and design closer together, so maybe we should be praising him for executing this strategy within his works. One can see the enormous influence that Albers, vigorously inventive in its geometric concepts, has had on later design styles. For example the illusory set of rectangles in To Monte Alban which anticipates the op-art inspired designs of the sixties and seventies; or the nervous but excited lines on the blue background of in open air which seem closer to reflecting the hedonism of the sixties than its actual year of creation of 1936.

But the setup of the exhibition doesn’t really attempt to chart Albers’ obviously enormous influence on the broader visual house of design. By featuring little of the design work of the Bauhaus, by largely missing a contextual or documentary element to explain their work, and by reducing their educational philosophies to some rather bland slogans, the exhibition does not allow Albers the designer to breathe. Set within the context of an artistic exhibition, where almost the entire focus of an exhibition is on the individual art objects, the painter is always going to trump the designer.

And so it was here; the most prominent works were the paintings. In particular, the suite of five abstract Moholy-Nagys which stood guard at one of the exhibition’s early rooms. Placed side by side, one had a much greater opportunity to grasp much of Moholy’s visual philosophy. The suggestion of space on a flattened plane, the impossible transparencies, the luscious slabs of colour, shining and fading, the geometric rays, the spatial echoes – all this became apparent by witnessing the juxtaposition of A19 with other works, (e.g. Construction Z 1, K VII – all superbly cod-scientific yet largely meaningless titles) from the 1920s. Moholy-Nagy indeed comes off the better in the exhibition. The exhibition demonstrates Moholy’s more focussed sense of direction and one gets a much better sense of a artist pursuing a particularly rich set of ideas. The flattened games of space conjured up in the iconic A19 can evolve into the perspex games of Double Loop via the graceful irrelevance of the Leonardo-esque machine Light Display.

Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, A19, 1927, Private Collection, Hungary.

But one shouldn’t ignore some of Albers’ painted works. Some of his 1940s work when he returned to colour is interesting – the smudges of colour that look like early Howard Hodgkin experiments. And some of Albers’ most memorable works were in the final rooms, the galley of coloured squares that, like paintings of Yves Klein, evoke an aesthetic response via the simplest means – although one should be a little hesitant to agree with Albers that perception of these paintings was an ethical as well as a aesthetic task. Committed engagement was with a politicised world was not really a target this most experimental of artists was likely to hit, at least not with his artworks alone.

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Filed under Albers, Modernist Art, Moholy-Nagy, Tate Modern

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