One Who Can See: A Look Back at Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color

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If one says ‘Red’ (the name of a color)
and there are 50 people listening,
it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds.
And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.

So begins Josef Albers’ revolutionary text Interaction of Color. From this first stanza, Albers issues his challenge to consider color not as a science and not as something “safe” for which one can develop a reliable system. He declares that color is a process of discovery. He proclaims it the most relative medium in art. In over 200, beautifully illustrated pages, one finds not a single color wheel nor any other attempt to identify the inherent order of his subject. Much the opposite. Albers believed color could only be understood through a series of increasingly complex interactions. He developed such a method during his tenure at Black Mountain College, work which culminated in 1963 with the publication of the Interaction of Color, a book acclaimed that same year by Howard Sayre Weaver to be a “grand passport to perception.”

With a half century’s distance, the success of Albers’ work seems obvious, but when the Yale University Press took on a collaboration with the artist, a happy outcome was far from certain. Albers was periodically subjected to criticism from some of the best-known critics of his era, and the challenges he issued to the accepted norm would encourage a firestorm of controversy. Even within the Yale community, Albers—a refugee from Nazism—was often viewed with skepticism for being German. Further complicating matters was Albers’s exacting nature and his unusual vision. He foresaw a work that defied the assumptions of his age and a book that was not meant to be read but to be used. Despite the difficulties and despite Albers’ notable character flaws (he shouted at his editors and didn’t speak to Chester Kerr, then director of the Press, for a full year), everyone at the Press dedicated themselves to the creation of a masterpiece. To convey Albers’ radical approach to color, the Press presented his work in a two-volume portfolio set of unbound folders. When the book was finally published, it stood well outside the realm of what any other publisher, academic or otherwise, dared to produce.

The effort resulted in a pioneering text that became more than a collector’s piece. To the great delight of everyone involved in its creation, it became one of the sacred objects of twentieth-century art, and it contributed greatly to Albers’ classification as a master in the pantheon of modernism. It gained wide popularity with students, instructors, and creators, with smaller versions coming out in the decades following the original’s publication to allow the work to be readily afforded by huge masses of people.

Albers was thrilled by this development, for his ambition had been greater than the production of a singular, groundbreaking text. He had hoped to create a new means of learning, teaching, and experiencing art, one not based on pedagogy but on human sensibility and openness. In Dore Ashton’s review in Studio, she recognized that Interaction of Color affirmed Albers’ maxim that “teaching is not a matter of method but of heart.”

Albers was fond of a quote by John Ruskin: “Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think. But thousands of people can think, for one who can see.” He saw this not as a truism but as a challenge. Interaction of Color was his reply: a book that has altered the lives of readers and expanded the ways colors are used and perceived in all forms of art. But beyond the minds of critics and collectors, Albers’ primary concern was always for the next generation, that they might have an education a step above the color wheels and globes of his own Bauhaus training.

With this truth in mind, Yale University Press, the Albers Foundation, and Potion Media Lab undertook the project of creating a 21st-century iteration of the Interaction of Color: an Award-winning app for the iPad®, which has been described as “The gateway to an entire way of thinking… It will blow your mind” (Liz Stinson, Wired); “Amazing. Beyond groundbreaking” (Debbie Millman, Design Matters); “ Magnificent … an essential piece of visual literacy” (Maria Popova, Brainpickings.org); and “A visionary work” (Malcolm Jones, Newsweek/Daily Beast).

The original dedication page of the Interaction of Color reads,This book is my thanks to my students.” With these words, Albers continues to welcome readers to the adventure and the rare wonder of seeing.

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