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

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

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

“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 (March 19, 1888–March 25, 1976), 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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Patti Smith’s Advice to the Young, by Way of William S. Burroughs

“To be an artist — actually, to be a human being in these times — it’s all difficult. … What matters is to know what you want and pursue it.”

In this short video from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, legendary performer, poet, lettuce-soup maker, and beloved reconstructionist Patti Smith offers her life’s wisdom to the young. Highlights below.

On finding your purpose and doing what you love:

A writer, or any artist, can’t expect to be embraced by the people [but] you just keep doing your work — because you have to, because it’s your calling.

On maintaining creative integrity and not compromising — the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs (who typically offered the young advice of a more politically incorrect nature), which stayed with her all along:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.

On relinquishing the false god of perfection and instead learning to ride with life’s ebb and flow:

To be an artist — actually, to be a human being in these times — it’s all difficult. … What matters is to know what you want and pursue it.

[…]

[Life] is like a roller coaster. It’s never going to be perfect — it is going to have perfect moments, and then rough spots, but it’s all worth it.

In her superb 2010 memoir, Just Kids (public library), Smith traces her own journey to that first spark of creative calling after a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a “moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs.” The visit left her profoundly mesmerized by the world of art and its alluring promise:

Secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.

In the book, she also paints a colorful portrait of the notoriously eccentric Burroughs:

William Burroughs was simultaneously old and young. Part sheriff, part gumshoe. All writer. He had a medicine chest he kept locked, but if you were in pain he would open it. He did not like to see his loved ones suffer. If you were infirm he would feed you. He’d appear at your door with a fish wrapped in newsprint and fry it up. He was inaccessible to a girl but I loved him anyway.

He camped in the Bunker with his typewriter, his shotgun, and his overcoat. From time to time he’d slip on his coat, saunter our way, and take his place at the table we reserved for him in front of the stage.

Just Kids remains a must-read. Pair Smith’s advice with more words of wisdom to the young (at heart) by Neil Gaiman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charles Bukowski, and E. O. Wilson.

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The Freedom of the Press: George Orwell on the Media’s Toxic Self-Censorship

“The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

In 1937, George Orwell got the idea for his now-classic dystopian allegory exploring the ferocious dictatorship of Soviet Russia in a satirical tale eviscerating Stalin’s regime. In his 1946 essay Why I Write, Orwell remarked that this was his first conscious effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” But by the time he finished it six years later, in the middle of World War II and shortly before the start of the Cold War, the book’s decidedly anti-Soviet message presented an obvious challenge in politically cautious Britain. The manuscript was rejected by four major houses, including Orwell’s publisher of record, Gollancz, and T. S. Eliot himself at Faber and Faber.

Perhaps even more interesting than the story of the book, however, is the prescient essay titled “The Freedom of the Press,” which Orwell intended as a preface to the book. Included in Penguin’s 2000 edition of Animal Farm (public library) as “Orwell’s Proposed Preface to Animal Farm,” the essay — penned more than seven decades after Mark Twain bewailed that “there are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press” — tackles issues all the more timely today in the midst of global media scandals, vicious censorship, and near-ubiquitous government-level political surveillance.

Orwell begins by excerpting a letter from a publisher who had originally agreed to publish the book but later, under the Ministry of Information’s admonition, recanted:

I mentioned the reaction I had had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think … I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

Noting the general menace of such governmental meddling in the private sector of publishing and the resulting censorship, Orwell bemoans the broader peril at play:

The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

(Exactly thirty years later, E. B. White would come to redirect this critique at commercial rather than governmental pressures.)

The picture he paints of the press and its relationship with dissent and public opinion is ominously similar to what Galileo faced with the Catholic church nearly half a millennium earlier:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines — being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Orwell critiques the groupthink of the intelligentsia and the odd flip-flopping of moral absolutism and moral relativism they employ when confronted with the question of whether Animal Farm should be published:

The reaction towards it of most English intellectuals will be quite simple: “It oughtn’t to have been published.” Naturally, those reviewers who understand the art of denigration will not attack it on political grounds but on literary ones. They will say that it is a dull, silly book and a disgraceful waste of paper. This may well be true, but it is obviously not the whole of the story. One does not say that a book “ought not to have been published” merely because it is a bad book. After all, acres of rubbish are printed daily and no one bothers. The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress. If it did the opposite they would have nothing to say against it, even if its literary faults were ten times as glaring as they are.

At the heart of the question is an ethical dilemma manifest all the more viscerally today, when opinions can be — and are, prolifically — expressed on more platforms than Orwell could have possibly imagined:

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?” and the answer more often than not will be “No.” In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought. These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.

But his most prescient point is his concluding one:

To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

On August 17, 1945, Animal Farm was at last published. It went on to sell millions of copies and has been translated into more than seventy languages.

Complement Orwell’s essay with E. B. White on the free press, cultural icons on censorship and Rudyard Kipling’s satirical poem poking fun at the press.

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