This is a reprinting of part four of a five part original article on Josef Albers by Doreen Balabanoff. It originally appeared in Leadline in 1994. You can read Part One here.
From this time on, the works are conceived of as 'glass painting', no longer operating on the transmitted light principle of stained glass. Finkelstein points to a drawing produced in 1923, showing an elevational view of buildings in which the chief subject matter is the patterning of windows on the building facades. He notes the 'reversal principle' which seems to be formulated here, and which will become the conceptual basis of the sandblasted panels:
Here… the window panes are black; they admit no light, as all the light comes from the outside of the building or from the front of the work of art and is therefore reflected, not transmitted from behind.
Glass was a medium both rooted in the craftsman tradition and able to respond to the 20th century machine aesthetic. Albers had astutely picked up on both aspects, using the flashed glasses already in production by a progressive German glass industry, and co-opting the new machine technology of sandblasting, which was being used as a new cost-effective means of lettering gravestones. At first using transparent flashed glasses, Albers had realized that "the surface coat might be removed to let light come through". By 1925 he was using a "milky white opaque core," which he enjoyed for the illusion of "light coming through". Always interested in perceptual games, Albers must have delighted in the first realization of the "illusionistic window" he could hang upon the wall surface, complete with its own internal 'light source.'
Elements of his so-called "thermometer style" are to be seen in the commissioned works for the Grassi Museum (1923-24) and the Ulstein Publishing House (1924). Based on " an absolutely maintained vertical beat and an alternating or otherwise varied horizontal rhythm", this motif would be repeated in a series of variation over the next four years, using a three-colour scheme: one hue sandblasted through to clear or white; and black provided by firing glass paint onto the surface.
At first strongly suggestive of musical intervals and rhythms (several in 1925 were entitled "Fugue"), these sandblasted pieces came closer, as time went on, to refined graphic abstractions of modernist architecture. As they developed, there was an increasing interest in the dynamic properties of pattern and line, fueled, one suspects, by the optical complexities which could be aroused by such simple but high contrast images through the flickering effects of after-image.
We can see in these works, too, the development of an interest in the spatial illusions which lines of varying thicknesses and values could produce. Finkelstein suggests a strong correlation with some of the issues being explored in the work of Moholy-Nagy (who was by this time teaching the Vorkurs with Albers), notably the overlapping of transparent planes and other plastic qualities of light and space. But he points out that where Moholy-Nagy constructs his images carefully so that we clearly understand which elements are in front or behind one another, Albers deliberately aims for spatial ambiguity.
Concluded in Part Five.