Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

16 AUGUST, 2013

The Magic and Logic of Color: How Josef Albers Revolutionized Visual Culture and the Art of Seeing

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“A thing is never seen as it really is.”

“Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think,” John Ruskin wrote, “but thousands of people can think, for one who can see.” “We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object,” Alexandra Horowitz lamented in her sublime meditation on looking. Hardly anyone has accomplished more in revolutionizing the art of seeing than German-born American artist, poet, printmaker, and educator Josef Albers, as celebrated for his iconic abstract paintings as he was for his vibrant wit and spellbinding presence as a classroom performer. In 1963, he launched into the world what would become the most influential exploration of the art, science, psychology, practical application, and magic of color — an experiment, radical and brave at the time, seeking to cultivate a new way of studying and understanding color through experience and trial-and-error rather than through didactic, theoretical dogma. Half a century later, Interaction of Color (public library), with its illuminating visual exercises and mind-bending optical illusions, remains an indispensable blueprint to the art of seeing.

Albers, who headed the legendary Black Mountain College that shaped such luminaries as Zen composer John Cage and reconstructionist Ruth Asawa, lays out the book’s beautifully fulfilled and timeless promise in the original introduction:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.

First, it should be learned that one and the same color evokes innumerable readings. Instead of mechanically applying or merely implying laws and rules of color harmony, distinct color effects are produced-through recognition of the interaction of color-by making, for instance, two very different colors look alike, or nearly alike.

THE RELATIVITY OF COLOR

A color has many faces, and one color can be made to appear as two different colors. Here it is almost unbelievable that the left small and the right small squares are part of the same paper strip and therefore are the same color. And no normal human eye is able to see both squares -- alike.

Albers defied the standard academic approach of “theory and practice,” focusing instead on “development of observation and articulation,” with an emphasis not only on seeing color, but also feeling the relationships between colors. He writes:

[Interaction of Color] reverses this order and places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice. … Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical — neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side — so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color. This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of music, or of art.

Practical exercises demonstrate through color deception (illusion) the relativity and instability of color. And experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here — first and last — is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision — seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.

AFTERIMAGE EFFECT

The 'afterimage effect' demonstrates the interaction of color caused by interdependence of color: On the left are yellow circles of equal diameter which touch each other and fill out a white square. There is a black dot in its center. On the right is an empty white square, also with a centered black dot. Each is on a black background. After staring for half a minute at the left square, shift the focus suddenly to the right square. Instead of the usual color-based afterimage that would complement the yellow circles with blue, their opposite, a shape-based afterimage is manifest as diamond shapes -- the 'leftover' of the circles -- are seen in yellow. This illusion double, reversed afterimage is sometimes called contrast reversal.

To mark the book’s fiftieth anniversary, Debbie Millman, who is herself a master of color, sits down to discuss Albers’s far-reaching legacy and his fundamental contributions to our everyday understanding of color with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Philip Tiongson, who designed the magnificent iPad app accompanying the new edition of the book (an app so exceptional, in fact, that Millman rightly calls it “the example the world has been waiting for in order to begin to understand how it’s possible that books will never, ever go away”). Here are some of the highlights from an altogether fascinating conversation.

On how the brain’s conditioning to notice only what it expects cheats us of the richness of seeing:

Albers believed that in normal seeing, we use our eyes so much because the world is controlled by our vision, but we become so accustomed to it that we take things for granted. And when he talked about visual perception, he meant something much more profound than just the way we look at the world — he would stop and look at the world, look at the smallest object, smallest event, and see through it in a deep kind of way. … He would see magic, he would see something deeper. And he believed that the majority of people just missed the true reality — it was available for everyone to see, but nobody was looking. And that was where his notion of “to open eyes” really comes from.

On Albers’s unconventional approach as an art educator and the mesmerism he had over his students:

The one word that to Josef Albers was absolute anathema was “self-expression.” He said you do not express yourself — you have to learn, you have to have these skills, and then you create something.

Fittingly, one of Albers’s most memorable quotes:

Easy to know that diamonds are precious. Good to learn that rubies have depth. But more to see that pebbles are miraculous.

On how Albers embodied the aphorism that “the art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery” and challenged his Black Mountain College students to experiment with materials in a way that counters the assumptions of perceptual reality:

He believed in experiential teaching — not in putting out a rule and teaching students how to execute that rule. He believed in discovery in the classroom, and that is why his classes were always new and different.

On Albers’s intention with building not a theoretical treatise but a practical toolkit for understanding color:

Albers was not interested in creating a treatise on color. He was not giving you rules about color — he was giving you tools to unlock what he considered the magic of color.

Hear the full interview below, and subscribe to the indispensable Design Matters on iTunes or SoundCloud:

Interaction of Color (public library) is an essential piece of visual literacy, exploring such fascinating subjects and phenomena as color recollection and visual memory, the relativity of color, transparence and space-illusion, temperature and humidity in color, and the afterimage effect. Complement it with Goethe on the psychology of color and emotion and The Black Book of Colors.

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15 AUGUST, 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Feisty Critique of Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Education, and the NYC Skyline

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“Taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.”

Frank Lloyd Wright may be one of history’s greatest architects, but he was also a source of endlessly quotable wit, timeless wisdom on education, and a lesser-known but exceptionally talented graphic artist. Above all, however, he was man of invariably strong opinions, always unapologetic in his convictions and unafraid to challenge even the most sacrosanct of dogmas.

In Conversations with Artists (public library) — writer and public intellectual Selden Rodman’s fantastic 1957 anthology, which also gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality shortly before the artist’s death — Wright unleashes the full force of his opinionation on some of his architectural elite peers, the disconnect between education and culture, and the trouble with the Manhattan skyline.

When asked about his opinion of Le Corbusier’s epoch-making church on the French-Swiss border, Wright scoffs:

An angel cake punched full of holes — or should I say a piece of Swiss Cheese?

Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House gets the even shorter end of the stick:

Is it Philip? … And is it architecture?

He later elaborates on his contempt:

Philip Johnson is a highbrow. A highbrow is a man educated beyond his capacity. His house is a box of glass — not shelter. The meaning of the word shelter includes privacy.

When Rodman admires a Chinese silk painting in Wright’s home, the architect offers, “almost apologetically,” a disclaimer shared by those who have found their purpose and attained fulfilling work:

It looks as though we live pretty soft here, doesn’t it? We don’t. You’d be surprised at the amount of work that goes on… It’s never work though, is it, when you’re doing anything organic?

Rodman visits with Wright again some weeks later and finds him, at the time in his late eighties, “very handsome,” dressed in a “pink shirt with a white collar and a striped tie, knotted at the throat, leaving the ends folded back artist-fashion fin de siècle.” The architect is in an especially feisty mood that day. His first target is Gotham’s skyline:

The New York skyline is a medieval atrocity. … Good architecture shouldn’t have to depend on distance or the dark for its effects.

He takes the same sword to the institutions of formal education, for which he famously eviscerated throughout his life:

The universities are medieval antiquities, too. They’ll never get culture through education. … The common man will never get it. He is the enemy of culture. Culture is made for him — but in spite of him, because he believes only what he sees, and he sees only what he can put his hands on. We’ve missed culture somewhere along the way.

On a subsequent visit, Rodman finds Wright in a much more amenable mood, possibly due to the company of a lady he was having tea with — and no average lady but the revered critic and champion of art Emily Genauer. Rodman, tickled by Wright’s good humor, decides to ask him whether there was any truth to the legend that he once absentmindedly went to see a client in his pajama bottoms. The answer bespeaks both the artifice of pop culture myths and the commanding diva-disposition that only creative geniuses can afford:

Not a word of truth. In the first place, whatever I am, I am always well dressed. In the second place, I don’t go to clients. They come to me.

Wright then returns to the subject of the disconnect between culture and education:

All culture is indigenous, as distinguished from education.

When Rodman asks him how America is to get an indigenous culture if it has failed to do so in two centuries, Wright responds with a beautiful metaphor from botany:

The same way the Dutch developed the delphinium. They started with the larkspur, and kept cultivating the roots until they had something better. They didn’t start from scratch. They were smart enough to start with something humble. Until they knew its nature they weren’t in a position to improve on it. It’s the same with culture. Until this lesson is learned we’ll get nowhere.

When Rodman suggests that perhaps we’re learning it since our taste appears to be improving, Wright retorts:

Taste [isn't] enough … taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.

Frank Lloyd Wright with his model of the Guggenheim Museum (Photo: Associated Press via The New York Times)

The conversation concludes by circling back to New York. In 1943, Wright had been commissioned to design the new building for the city’s legendary Guggenheim Museum. He would die several weeks before the museum’s completion in 1959. Rodman asks him whether he would’ve taken a similar commission had the project been a skyscraper rather than a museum, and Wright responds in the negative with his characteristic clarity of conviction:

It would be immoral to add to the congestion of this already hopeless city. … The only way to save this city is to take buildings out of it, not to put more in, and of course the latter is what they are doing.”

He ends the conversation by citing an entertaining encounter with media mogul Henry Luce, in which he surprised Luce by referring to himself, in contrast to “the old professionals,” as “the oldest amateur.” (Coincidentally, the following year, Wright coined his famous aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’”)

Conversations with Artists is priceless in its entirety, featuring revealing tête-à-têtes with such creative icons (alas, predominantly male) as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg. Complement it with Anaïs Nin’s lyrical account of meeting Wright’s son.

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24 JULY, 2013

Amelia Earhart on Drive, Education, Religion, and Human Nature in Letters to Her Mother

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“The more one does the more one can do.”

When Amelia Earhart, born on July 24, 1897, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she left behind a legacy shrouded in legend, glory, and modern-day mythmaking. But whatever Amelia the public icon may have imparted, Amelia the private person brimmed with far more dimensional insight on life — on determination, on education, on religion, on human nature — which spills open in Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library), the same fantastic volume that gave us her remarkably forward-thinking views on marriage.

Though she grew up in a troubled home, financially strained and with an alcoholic father, Amelia’s determination and independence were evident from an early age: In March of 1914, aged 17, she wrote in a letter to a school friend:

Of course I’m going to [Bryn Mawr] if I have to drive a grocery wagon to accumulate the cash.

Amelia Earhart, St. Paul, 1914.

Though she didn’t end up going to Bryn Mawr, Amelia was firmly set on getting an education and entered the Ogontz School, a junior college in Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1916. In October the following year, twenty-year-old Amelia writes her mother about having taken on an extraordinary amount of academic and extracurricular work — something she found stimulating rather than stressful, per her already typical determination:

I am taking Modern Drama Literature, German and German Literature outside. French three and five in which latter we are reading Eugénie Grandet. And Senior arithmetic and logic if I can. Besides reading a good deal and art, Bible, etc. etc.

I am elected to write the senior song, but you know the more one does the more one can do.

A few days later, she adds in another letter:

Despite my unusual activity I am very well organized to do more the more I do. You know what I mean. … I am not overdoing and all that is needed to bouncing health is plenty to eat and happiness. Consider me bursting, please.

In the fall of 1919, Amelia enrolled in Columbia University as a premed student. In a letter to her mother she sent from New York that year, Amelia expresses her views on the disconnect between religion and spirituality in a simple yet enormously eloquent way:

Don’t think for an instant I would ever become an atheist or even a doubter nor lose faith in the [Episcopalian] church’s teachings as a whole. That is impossible. But you must admit there is a great deal radically wrong in methods and teachings and results to-day. Probably no more than yesterday, but the present stands up and waves its paws at me and I see — can’t help it. It is not the clergy nor the church itself nor the people that are narrow, but the outside pressure that squeezes them into a routine.

But Amelia soon found her faith in the skies. In 1920, she fell in love with flying and the rest, as they say, is history. Eight years later, in June of 1928, as she was about to make her first transatlantic flight as a passenger, she wrote her mother in a telegram:

DONT WORRY STOP NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS IT WILL HAVE BEEN WORTH THE TRYING STOP LOVE-A

Orville Wright and Amelia Earhart at Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1936

But despite her passion for the skies, Amelia always kept education, especially the education of women, a primary focus of her relentless dedication, lecturing in universities around the world and even inspiring a course in “household engineering” at Purdue University, where 1,000 of the 6,000 students were women. She also counseled young women on their careers. At Purdue, she advised graduating girls to try a certain job but not be afraid to make a change if they found something better, adding:

And if you should find that you are the first woman to feel an urge in that direction, what does it matter? Feel it and act on it just the same. It may turn out to be fun. And to me fun is the indispensable part of work.

(Appropriately, she titled her memoir The Fun Of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation.)

Arrival after solo transatlantic flight, Culmore, Ireland, 1932

But her most poignant words — a lament on the good and evil in human nature — come from a letter to her sister Muriel, who was trapped in an abusive marriage to an alcoholic gambler:

Adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check. That is often very hard to do. One hesitates to bring on a quarrel when it can be avoided by giving in. But perhaps one definite assertion will prevent the slow accumulation of a sense of superiority in a person who really should not claim superiority. Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. It is hopeless to watch a character change of this kind in one you have cared for — a few rows might have been less suffering in the long run.

She adds:

Human crises have a way of happening at inconvenient times.

A few months later, during her second attempt to fly around the world, Amelia disappeared over Howland Island in the central Pacific, never to be seen again.

Amelia Earhart. Self-portrait. Date uncertain.

In the afterword to Letters from Amelia, which is sadly out-of-print but luckily still available used and an absolute treasure in its entirety, editor Jean L. Backus captures the singular expansiveness of Amelia’s spirit with a few brilliantly chosen words:

Amelia Earhart was clear as glass and cloudy as milk at the same time, and she was marked for greatness. She rarely failed either in public or in private to live up to what she demanded of herself. She would not compromise with integrity, she did not quail before danger, and she brought honor by word and deed to her sex, her country, her kin, and herself.

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