It was with considerable reluctance that I moved off my couch on Friday evening to see the exhibit of Josef Albers drawings at the Morgan Library. I had little interest in seeing more of the artist’s canonical, clinical square-on-square (Homage to the Square) compositions that I felt I already knew too well. So I was taken aback at the work on display, which included studies for those square paintings, and wells as more robustly figural works that I’d never seen before. These drawings revealed a warmth and workmanship that, for the first time, brought the artist’s work to life for me.
Most remarkable were a series of studies Albers made while living in Mexico from 1947 to 1948 called Variant/Adobe. Based on the serene, severe geometries of a native house facade, they’re painstaking investigations into the alchemy of color and form. In each panel the artist constructs the same basic figure — an oblong house front with two windows — from different color schemes. There’s a gorgeous hesitancy to these pieces. The shapes are outlined lightly in pencil on rough blotter paper. Then Albers takes a color, straight from the tube, and, after applying some daub of it, selects another to try right alongside. It doesn’t look as if he’s always working incrementally, trying to pin down the exact right shade of yellow within a spectrum, but following crazy hunches, doing everything he can to allow the correct color, whatever it is, to reveal himself. Albers had always seemed like the most tiresome of painters, a pedagogue who painted what was already known to him in order to make it perfectly clear to everyone else. These drawings, that show him searching and struggling, show otherwise.
Renzo Piano has become our go-to architect for museums. He designed the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1977 with former partners Richard Rice and Richard Rogers and then, solo, the Menil Collection and additions to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art. The Pompidou Center is a singular piece of work, but the others are tasteful, intelligent and unobtrusive structures that generally stay out of the way of the artwork. So nothing prepared me for the power of Piano’s addition to the Morgan Library, which opened in 2006 but I saw for the first time last week. I’ve passed its discrete, metal-clad entrance on Madison Avenue countless times and simply walked on by, so unprepossessing did it seem from the sidewalk.
But the interior is commanding, a place where pristine cartesian space rules. Piano’s addition, which serves as a lobby and cafe, connects three existing Morgan buildings, including the original Charles Mckim-designed museum from 1903. Piano imagined the new building as a perfect cube and there’s a a geometric rigor in its details and construction as well as its proportions. This modest glass box (it’s only about about eighteen feet high) gave me more pleasure than any other modern building I’ve visited in New York City. My favorite parts are the framelesss glass elevator cabs (they’re also cubes) that rise and fall musically, and seemingly effortlessly, on exposed pistons. American architects continually grumble that their clients prefer traditional styles and that their contractors can’t build finely. This building shows otherwise.