Conversation between Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator, and Amy Jean Porter, assistant curator,
both of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.
Described as “one of the most important books on color ever written” (Michael Hession, Gizmodo), Josef Albers’s classic Interaction of Color is as integral to art education today as it was when it was first published in 1963. First a limited silkscreen edition with 150 color plates, Interaction of Color later also appeared in paperback in 1971 featuring ten color studies chosen by Albers, and has remained in print ever since. In 2013, the anniversary edition presented a significantly expanded selection of close to sixty color studies alongside Albers’s original text. In this piece, Brenda Danilowitz and Amy Jean Porter discuss the far-reaching impact of Albers’s transfixing book.
Amy Jean Porter: I think I first encountered Interaction of Color in a New Haven bookstore—it would
have been one of the paperback editions. I flipped through it standing in the aisle and then
purchased it immediately. The paperback is affordable and portable and compelling in its simplicity.
It made me curious. The title is straightforward but poses an immediate question, at least in my
mind: what exactly does it mean for colors to interact?
I imagine many people come across the book this way, outside of the classroom or in an art-making
context, wandering through bookstores. You’ve been thinking about Interaction of Color as chief
curator of the Albers Foundation for more than thirty years. Do you remember the first time you
picked up a paperback, or perhaps you were introduced to the 1963 portfolio from the start? What
kind of an impression did it make on you?
Brenda Danilowitz: As an art historian in college, although we did touch on Albers—as I recall in a
class on Impressionism—color, as material, was not ever a topic. I had probably been at the Albers
Foundation for a while before I “discovered” Interaction of Color and, rather than being a sudden
awakening, it seeped into my understanding of Albers quite surreptitiously, in the form of an artifact,
the original 1963 Portfolio. When I did get around to reading the text, I was at first completely
baffled. So, I would say that my understanding of what Albers was doing in this unusual “book”
took the form of a slow process and many readings.
AJP: I do remember having the impression that I was in an experiment by a mad scientist. The book is unlike any other I’ve ever read or experienced. The format is unusual in that the main text is separate from the images. You learn to flip from the text to the images and examples, but it requires a leap of faith and energy at first. I had taken a couple of drawing classes in college, so I had some background, but I first read the text straight through, without looking at the color plates. I think I tried to create the color studies in my mind, but of course that was impossible. It even sounds a bit crazy to me now.
I learned very quickly that the colors in my imagination were unreliable, and, once I understood the actual color studies, I saw the colors on the page were equally unreliable. Of course, this is Albers’s great revelation. I remember this experience extremely well, and it was a major shift in how I saw the world. What has been your experience of learning from Albers? Did you have an “ah-ha” moment?
BD: I don’t think so. My understanding developed quite slowly, probably because I was more comfortable with written texts, and yet this was really nothing like anything I’d read before. For one thing, the appearance of the text on the page looked more like a poem than an instruction manual. After multiple readings I began to understand how Albers’s typographic design paralleled the rhythms and cadences of speech.
Around this time, I was researching a book on the history and methods of Albers’s teaching and the
more I came to understand the active, performative, nature of his teaching, the more I recognized
how the Interaction of Color text embodied that performance. When Interaction of Color first appeared in
1963, those who had some experience of Albers’s teaching, recognized this.
Reviewing the book, former Albers student, Nancy Malone, advised her readers to have “a
comfortable chair, a large table, and a good bit of time” to come to grips with this “very large book
[which] cannot be assimilated quickly. “In fact,” she continued “any attempt to comprehend it at
one sitting or skim it for its flavor, is guaranteed to result in visual dazzlement and intellectual
bewilderment.” “[B]egin slowly” was her advice.
AJP: This is really interesting to me, that the sheer size of the original 1963 portfolio (weighing
nearly 22 pounds, with 80 separate folders of screenprints) is as demanding physically as it is
mentally. The book requires a large and sturdy table and some time to figure out how to manage all
the pieces in any kind of coherent way, let alone understand the lessons inside. The experience
requires a commitment that is completely immersive.
The paperback, on the other hand, slips easily onto your nightstand. A reader can take it in a bit at a
time. And now we have the digital version, which weighs nothing and can be viewed on a
smartphone. You could try a color study on the subway or waiting in line somewhere. I imagine
Albers would have had to approve the first paperback version in 1971, which was published in his
lifetime. How important is the physical/immersive aspect of the original? How important is the
object, versus allowing more people to have some experience of it?
BD: In fact, it was Albers who suggested the first “paperback” of Interaction of Color which was
actually a hardcover “pocket edition” that measured only 8 ¼ x 6 in. It grew larger over the years,
changed shape a little, and in the most recent iteration contains 60 of the 122 color plates from the
original. The digital editions—a CD-Rom in 1994; an iPad App in 2010; and now this web-based
edition—make Interaction of Color easily available on all devices and completely portable.
Seamlessly woven into the new digital edition is a video in which Albers himself introduces his
“invention”; short video demonstrations of more than 30 of the studies; and “testimonial” videos by
artists, architects, and designers. Text and plates run side by side and the commentaries on
individual plates are integrated into the reading. A color palette with 525 options allows users to
create, save and share their own studies of each exercise.
I love how smoothly all the parts of the original and all the new elements have been layered, without
losing any of the content and, at the same time, honoring the original design. What is often
overlooked is the objectness of Interaction of Color. It’s a minor miracle that we now have a “virtual”
object that subtly retains Albers’s design in a true Albersian spirit.