Several small reproductions of paintings by legends in the art world — think Matisse, Vermeer, Cezanne — hang side by side in Sweet Briar College’s Pannell Gallery.
Each painting, featured in the exhibit “Josef Albers and the Interaction of Color,” appears twice and, at first glance, you’d never know they were actually two different images. But, as you get closer, differences start to appear.
That’s because one is a true reproduction of the original painting, while the other is a pixelated version created by Albers, an artist and educator whose work had a profound influence on the development of modern art in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, according to educational nonprofit The Art Story.
The aforementioned paintings are featured in Albers’ landmark book “The Interaction of Color,” in a chapter called “The Masters.” There, he “argues that copying is not simply derivative,” Annie Labatt, a Sweet Briar art history professor, writes in the exhibition’s catalog.
“He argues that his pictorial responses are acts of creation that provide a new viewpoint or understanding of the original.”
Albers’ work with color theory began in the 1930s when he was teaching at North Carolina’s now-defunct Black Mountain College, a small liberal arts school Labatt compared to Sweet Briar during an interview there last month.
Albers eventually wound up at Yale, where he conducted a series of thought experiments with students that would eventually be featured in his book, exploring how colors work scientifically, subjectively and subconsciously, according to press materials for the Sweet Briar exhibit.
“In essence,” Labatt writes in the catalog, “they were attempting to understand and visualize how we see the way we see.”
One of the concepts he explored, according to the catalog, was how colors can change based on their surroundings, how, say, three identical red circles will look different when you place them on top of different colored backgrounds.
Albers wanted his students to understand color by doing their own studies and through trial-and-error. So he asked them a series of questions, which they then responded to by creating collages out of colored paper.
“You can imagine the students coming together to solve these problems,” Labatt said, “[and] seeing how colors shift and change when you change their context.”
The students’ responses eventually were turned into silkscreen prints — 150 of them in all — and included as part of the book when it was released in 1963 by Yale University Press.
“Interaction of Color” has two parts: the prints, which are referred to as “folders” and kept in a box, paired with Albers’ commentary on what each one shows. The original edition was massive, according to the tech publication Wired, “about as big as a turntable and as heavy as a 20-pound dumbbell” and more of a hands-on kit “meant to be sprawled out on a table and interacted with as a way for students to learn about the relationships between colors.”
Two thousand copies of the silkscreen prints were produced, Labatt said, “which sounds like a big number.” But finding them all together, like they are at Sweet Briar, isn’t as common, she said, especially considering their use as a teaching tool.
That’s how the college’s studio art department originally used them in the late 1970s before the prints were transferred to Sweet Briar’s permanent collection in the 1980s.
This is the first time they’ve all been shown together. Most of the framed prints feature bright, bold colors intersecting in interesting ways, some creating patterns. There’s also a wall right by the entrance that features work by other artists, including Albers' wife, Anni, to show the influence he had on both contemporary and later artists, Labatt said.
A video projection showing Sweet Briar students working with the prints prior to the exhibition is on a constant loop in the gallery, and they’ve also set up iPads, where visitors can interact with an app version of Albers’ book.
The app — developed by Yale University Press in 2013, for the 50th anniversary of the original edition’s release — features more than 125 color plates and 60 interactive studies that “simulate the cut paper exercises Albers’ students used to learn theories like how two seemingly different colors are exactly the same,” according to wired.com, as well as video interviews with designers, artists and architects and commentary from Albers himself.
In addition to the simple beauty of the colors interacting, Labatt sees a larger theme in the work, one tracing back to Albers’ own history. He left Germany “when it was being encroached upon and torn apart by the Nazi regime,” she writes in the catalog. “Albers knew that appearances could be fatefully deceiving.”
In the third chapter of his book, Albers writes about how we can all hear the same tone but rarely, almost never, do we see a “single color unconnected and unrelated to other colors.” They’re in flux, “constantly related to changing neighbors and changing conditions.”
One example Labatt gave was how she could say the color red to a room full of people and each person could picture something different in their mind.
“There’s an ethical aspect as well,” she said, “understanding others’ perspectives. Ideologically, it opens up those kinds of conversations.”