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This Artwork Changed My Life: Josef Albers’s “Interaction of Color”

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.
’s 1963 book Interaction of Color has not only changed my life, it has also affected my worldview. The ease with which the book addresses color theory in art, consecutively with race and class, is nothing short of remarkable. Albers does this open-mindedly, and with an astonishing sense of tolerance for error in one’s judgment and perception. Each chapter reads as a simple, step-by-step process of instruction and exercises to convey the interrelatedness of color. In the process, Albers eschews a “master narrative,” and instead allows for other voices to speak and be heard. He strives for a community of others to voice their collective truth as they work through a series of color problems.
With the federal government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, and the ensuing race and class inequities that have come with it, what becomes increasingly apparent is that something else is needed to create greater equanimity amongst ourselves in this time of crisis. In engaging Albers’s vision of tolerance, I see a way of addressing the social change needed to heal us from the pain of racial conflict and social misunderstanding. Interaction of Color has taught me so much about understanding the benefit of interconnectedness within communities. As a result, I have come to recognize the power of group effort to work through problems of perception.
New tensions are rising in America due to the reopening of our economy, which now seems to have been too rapid in execution. This is compounded with news that more people are getting sick on a daily basis, and at record numbers. A debate has intensified over social distancing and the need to wear masks: Does one have the right to tell another person what to wear? Does one have the right to make another person sick? The problem worsens still with the volatile and misdirecting rhetoric coming from the White House. In the face of all of these things, it might seem perplexing to ask questions of art, and yet I cannot think of anything more applicable at this time to help us understand what we are experiencing.
Interaction of Color addresses black and white in terms of value, as well as hue. The text speaks with complexity and nuance on black and white as colors—that white is not just white, nor is black only black. One learns quickly that you can no longer simply call one thing “black” when another black form is placed next to it, and the same goes for white. Within this ambiguity comes clarity; black and white become specific when placed alongside other similar versions of themselves, or any other thing for that matter.
The Albers book also addresses the conditionality of color, how color can exist in our imagination, and when color is communicated, how it can get lost in translation. This leads to the question of whether color is only relative to given situations. Albers smartly instructs that color is more than passive; he states in so many examples that color is interactive, and it can be determined and purposely activated when the group comes together to reason through what it sees. Additionally, it disavows a single, overarching reading. Albers speaks to the failings of teachers within this context—that the teacher can also be put to question. Open-mindedness in this instance becomes progress, and a part of the solution by working in a group to solve problems with reasoned consensus and resolve.
One of the more important points brought to light in Interaction of Color is transparency. This aspect involves the best of one’s imagination. When two colors are brought together in a transparency mix, the third color becomes a new color, not a mix of the two. This third color, whatever it may be, speaks to uniqueness and specificity. Albers also emphasizes that color should be considered for its value, inasmuch as for its saturation. This helps to give color its meaning within the specificity of a place. Outside of this, it is group perception that can activate colors and give them purpose within a space.
George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis Police makes it clear that the systematic brutality of institutional racism cannot be ignored, and the killing of Black people by police can no longer be allowed to continue. This abhorrent situation correlates with Albers’s insistence against the negative judgment of color. He wants us to recognize our biases and work against “taste” to see that no single color can be called distasteful, nor “ugly.” A goal in this book is to understand that color does not stand alone; that it can be understood with greater clarity when it stands next to another color to give it context. This is its value—as a means of encouraging people to work together, to build trust in the process of establishing a consensus that goes far beyond the limits of our individual perceptions.
Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on Franco Vaccari’s Photomatic d’Italia.
Odili Donald Odita is an artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. He has an upcoming show, “Mirrors,” opening this September at Jack Shainman Gallery.