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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bonny Vanatta: The Square vs. the Cube

The Square vs. The Cube

Bonny Vanatta

Abstract: Artists Manfred Mohr and Josef Ablers have what on the surface appears to be a similar fascination with the square and color. Delving deeper into the motives and processes employed in the making of their work reveals their drastic differences. Manfred Mohr uses the computer to make his hypercubes (4 and greater dimensions) in the series “space.color,” and Josef Albers uses a palette knife and paint in his series “Homage to the Square.” The author of this essay uses these two artists to understand the difference between computer arts and hand-made arts. She boils the differences down into one main issue: separation. She argues that the artist becomes too separated from his artwork when using a computer. She is also admittedly biased due to her painting background.

As a child, I used to play with the family computer. I would open up the painting program and try to find some way to express what I could easily render with pencil and paper, onto a computer screen. This was in the early nineties, so unfortunately, the odds were not in my favor and I rarely came up with the final product I had intended. I experienced enough difficulty in learning how to render something from my imagination onto a page using a pencil and my own hand, but once removed even further by a mouse to a computer screen, I was hopeless. This separation, or removal of the artist from the work, intrigues me. When looking at two superficially similar artists, Manfred Mohr and Josef Ablers, I noticed that this computer related removal differentiates between these two men, and the works that they produce. In his series, “Homage to the Square,” Albers uses a palette knife to apply the paint, while Mohr uses a computer in his “space.color” pieces. After reading more about both, I started to wonder if using a computer takes too much out of the artist’s hands, resulting in too much separation of the artist from his work.
To get the best understanding of an artist’s work, a look into his background helps the outsider to see the art from his perspective. I will start with Josef Albers since he started making art first. Albers was born in Bottrop Germany in 1888. He received an early art education in Berlin, Essen, and Munich. Early on, he became influenced by artists such as Edvard Munch and the Futurists and began painting abstract paintings in 1913. Joining the Bauhaus in Weimar added significantly to Albers’ artistic career. From 1922 he conducted the glass workshop there until the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, where he was then invited to teach. He taught basic design courses emphasizing an analysis of materials and form. His own works took many different forms: abstract paintings, paintings made by sandblasting glass, furniture, murals and prints. When the Bauhaus closed in 1933 due to the German Government, Albers and his wife, Anni Albers, went to the United States. The Black Mountain College, a school focused on art, in North Carolina invited them to teach. Here, Albers taught the way that he learned to teach at the Bauhaus, using the square format used by Kandinsky. In 1949, he started painting a series called “Variants” that dealt with intricate and complex arrangements that highlighted color relationships. Then, in 1950, Albers started teaching at Yale University and soon became the chairman of the art department. This same year he also started his “Homage to the Square” series. He would spend his summers teaching around the United States and Latin America. He also wrote a book called The Interaction of Color that culminates his lifelong study of color.1 He died in 1976.

Manfred Mohr, also from Germany, was born in Pforzheim in 1938. In 1957, he served an apprenticeship as a goldsmith because his father wanted him to become a jewelry designer. He also attended the School of Art and Design in Pforzheim. There, his professor Karl Heinz Wienert and Adolf Buchleiter introduced him to avant-garde art. Mohr won a school prize of the City of Pforzheim in 1962, and with it a scholarship to a partner school located in Barcelona, in which he enrolled, but never took any classes. While in Barcelona, he joined the rock group of singer Rocky Volcano. They toured Spain for two years making records and getting arrested, until Rocky Volcano bit the lead guitarist in the ear; they then disbanded. This was not a problem because Mohr and Jürgen Leudolph had already founded a private jazz club in Pforzheim. Mohr thought of himself much more as a musician than as a painter during this time. He played tenor sax and oboe in two jazz groups. Clearly his extensive background as a musician affected his artwork greatly, giving it rhythm and shape. When he did paint in 1962, he worked only with black and white, an act that many say point to as the first step toward computer arts; the use of black and white could be compared to the binary code of a computer. In 1963 and 1964 he enrolled in the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and in 1965 won the prize for lithography in 1965. From that year on, he gave up his former practice of action painting and moved to painting more logical, precise, architectural and geometric paintings. 1968 was a big year for Mohr. It was the year of his first gallery exhibition in Paris, the year that he wrote his book (published in the following year) called Artificiata I, and most importantly, the year that started him on the path of using a computer in his art. He saw in French television information about the Meteorological Institute of Paris and its new automatic plotter for the computer. After seeing it draw isobars and plotting wind directions across paper, he became inspired to use this new tool. He went to the institute and asked to use their machine for artistic purposes. The researchers, both curious and surprised, consented. He made art there until 1981 when the plotter was taken out of service. In 1969, he had his first exhibition, but the public reproached him for his methods. He did not give up though, and learned how to write a computer program with the direction of Pierre Barbaud (the first musician in Europe to compose with a computer). He also had some persuasion from Max Bense (the German art theorist).2 In 1972 Mohr began to work with the cube and in 1977 he began working with the four dimensional hypercube. By 1980 he was already dissecting the cube and in 1987, he had his first retrospective exhibition that renewed his original work with the hypercube, pushing him to branch out to five and six dimensions in 1989. In 1997 he was such an established artist that he was elected a member of the American Abstract Artists. He started to use color again in 1998 to better show the complexity of the work by differentiating planes. He lives and shows his work today.3

In order to adequately compare the works of these two artists, I have chosen one series from each of their long careers. For Josef Albers I have chosen his “Homage to the Square” series, and for Manfred Mohr I have chosen his “space.color” series. These two series have many elements in common which make them comparable, but their differences highlight the issue I am trying to resolve.

In the “Homage to the Square” seriesi, Albers made many studies of the deceptive, relative, and instable beast that is color by using the square. The square is a basic element of design and is a creation of the human mind for it very rarely exists in nature. The square solidly holds the colors and allows them to react against each other. He describes the square as a perfect stage for the color to perform. In keeping only four slight variations in the square setup of his paintings4 he gives the square movement by varying the colors used each time. The color relationships play with the viewer, some color squares pushing forward, others pushing back, and some vibrating upon contact with another. This series speaks to the relativity of color. People never see just one color purely alone, but always in relation to others. This relationship defines the color just as much as any name tagged onto it. It is this careful observation of color relationships, and various palettes, that create different moods and climates in a painting.5 He likened the way that colors interact with each other to the way that people interact. He paints about man in self-realization, and realization of relationships with others. A person has to be an individual and a member of society.6

Josef Albers’ methods of building a painting in this series draw many parallels to how computer artists work. First, in the layout, he precisely draws out three or four squares inside each other in which to place color. The strict ratios and placement mimic the strict, graphic quality of computer arts. His ground is made up of the whitest whites available at the time, so as not to distort any color. After making a solid base, he uses his palette knife to apply the paint onto the surface as thinly and evenly as possible. He applies the paints directly from the tube, without mixing colors (except colors not available in tubes in which case some white was added) to ensure the purest results.5 All this seems to be evidence of a computer artist just without the option of a computer, but Albers purposefully left the edges where the colors meet to reveal slight imperfections as proof that he applied the paint by palette knife. This action keeps his balance between a hand-made art and that made by a machine.7

On the other hand, Manfred Mohr actually uses a computer to make his series. His “space.color” series was the first color series he made since making only black and white images. He uses color to help define the complex form that is a six-dimensional cube. Mohr’s random color differentiates between his use and that of Albers; it serves to aid the viewer in making sense of the puzzle he presents.8 Different planes push forward and backward and lines create space at the same time that they negate it. This series of mathematical conundrums holds together, while simultaneously allowing each individual piece its own voice.ii

Because Mohr’s methods are integral to the conceptual aspect of the artwork, they must be discussed together. He uses a computer for its speed when working with such difficult and abstract concepts. He develops algorithms and uses the machine as an extension of his own knowledge by allowing it to calculate possibilities that a human could never conceive alone. In his algorithms, he introduces random parameters that do not disturb the fundamental structure of the cube, but provide an added element of unpredictability in the work. This unpredictability is not human error though. He uses the computer because it is free of human error, and also guarantees reproducibility. This method of working emphasizes that his art is determined rationally, not emotionally. No personal touch of the artist is visible. He separates viewer and artist from art work even further by creating an algorithm for an incomprehensible cube, something people intellectually cannot connect to, and then repeating the product for effect. He repeats his display of mathematical hierarchy of knowledge. He does not strive to make beautiful pieces of art, but instead seeks to produce a series that gives flat surfaces spatiality in an incredibly complex way.9

I am a painter. I have to keep in mind that my painterly bias naturally falls towards Josef Albers because I understand him already. I chose to embark on this soul-searching journey of an essay in an attempt to understand why it is that I lean so heavily toward Albers as opposed to a similar artist, Mohr, who clearly has hard drives full of artistic knowledge. My conclusion is simple: Manfred Mohr has removed himself from the art that he creates by placing too much of the process into the computer, preventing me from connecting to the finished products.

Mohr’s separation makes his pieces less emotional, and thus less approachable to the viewer. He purposefully makes algorithms, cold and mathematical by nature, and plugs them into a flawless computer that then creates something reproducible. I have flaws and am one of a kind (like everyone else in the world). I respond to flaws and find them beautiful. Albers left his handmade flaws for the viewer to see that he too makes tiny mistakes and his work has a more personal feel because of it. I also appreciate that great art happens in a window, a fleeting moment, that the artist alone knew how to catch. Each brushstroke or palette scraping tells the viewer a little more of the story about the captured moment. When Mohr removes the moment out of the piece by taking out any sign of its making, and reproduces that image, the special quality of that shared moment leaves the piece. I do not know what he thought about when making “space.color.” I have no idea because the middleman, or the computer, blocks my emotional reading of them.

I honestly do not understand this emotional blocking. In my opinion, art and emotions ventured forth into this world from the same womb. And, just as twins separated from birth tend to cut their hair the same length and break their legs at the same time, art and emotion increase in greatness together, and consequently, fall together as well. Art stirs people to emotions, and emotions stir people to art. I believe that it also drives tastes. I tend to like what emotionally attracts.

On the other hand, I understand that Albers hardly had an overflowing amount of emotion in his mark making or his choice in shapes for his series. I still find it far greater than in those of Mohr’s though, possibly because of the image it conjures. The viewer, when learning that each of the “Homage to the Square” paintings is in fact a painting, realizes that Albers labored over each of these pieces, painstakingly spreading the paint as thin and even as possible. Images come to mind of an elderly man hunched over a square board, palette knife in hand, nose inches from the surface, calculating the pressure of his arm and the varying thicknesses of paint.

Beyond that overly dramatized version of a possible reality, his color choice too certainly adds another layer of emotion to his series. Albers specifically chose his colors to create specific effects. He created moods and climates while simultaneously creating depth and movement. He took every characteristic of each color employed into account before touching paint-laden palette knife to board. He had immense control over his works because he carried out each minute piece of the process with his own hands.

Mohr creates an algorithm, but after physically plugging it into the computer, he has no more direct contact with the work until he removes the finished page from the printer or installs the flat screen display to the wall. The computer logically does all the computing and then displays options for Mohr. These options have differences due to the randomness that the artist inserted into the algorithm. This randomness takes control away from Mohr until he later decides which random result creates space the way he wants it to. His color too is random. The palette being chosen by him beforehand allows colors to appear in planes without his direction. This takes too much out of the artist’s hands and allows the tool to be too smart.

I also find myself questioning the point at which the intellectual aspect of the piece becomes too powerful for the aesthetics of the piece. Mohr’s work overwhelms me with its intelligence, but that intelligence poses a problem for the aesthetics. Too much mathematics happens and not enough concern for the visual presentation of this complicated idea. This overwhelming amount of mathematics also serves to push the viewer away. Conversely, Albers’ highest concern is his finished product. The way that the colors move with each other, their push and pull, becomes much more exciting than the concept behind it. This movement he created draws viewers in.

All this being said, I appreciate both artists greatly and find their work refreshing. Unfortunately, a good majority of artists do not value the intellectual aspect of art nearly as much as I believe it deserves. These two series though are based on very intellectual concepts. Both Mohr and Albers took considerable time and energy to make works that keep the viewer thinking. I am and always will be a painter, but I have great respect for a smart artist employing any tool.

1 Kynaston L. McShine, “Josef Albers.” Homage to the Square. New York, NY: The International Council of the Museum of Modern Art. 1964.

2 Kurtz, Thomas. “The Courage of One’s Convictions.” Online Article. 1994. Manfred Mohr Website. Oct. 15, 2008.

3 Biography. Manfred Mohr Website. Nov. 13, 2008

4 Overy, Paul. “The Work of Josef Albers: A Recognition of Restrictions.” Josef Albers: A National Touring Exhibition from The South Bank Centre 1994. Eastbourne, Sussex, England: Pegasus Graphic Production Ltd, 1994. 32.

5 Kynaston L. McShine, “Josef Albers.” Homage to the Square. New York, NY: The International Council of the Museum of Modern Art. 1964.

6 Overy, Paul. “The Work of Josef Albers: A Recognition of Restrictions.” Josef Albers: A National Touring Exhibition from The South Bank Centre 1994. Eastbourne, Sussex, England: Pegasus Graphic Production Ltd, 1994. 36.

7 Josef Albers: A National Touring Exhibition from The South Bank Centre 1994. Eastbourne, Sussex, England: Pegasus Graphic Production Ltd, 1994.

8space.color. 2001. Manfred Mohr Website. 17 Nov. 2008

9 Mengden, Lida von. “Manfred Mohr – Research in the Aesthetic Universe of the Cube.” Online Article. 2007. Manfred Mohr Website. 15 Oct. 2008. <>

i Example Albers Images:

Study for Homage to the Square;1963

Oil on plastic and board

Support: 762 x 762 mm


Presented by Mrs Anni Albers, the artist's widow and the Josef Albers Foundation 1978


Study for Homage to the Square;1964

Oil on plastic and board

Support: 762 x 762 mm frame: 780 x 780 x 30 mm


Presented by Mrs Anni Albers, the artist's widow and the Josef Albers Foundation 1978


ii Example Mohr Images:


enduraChrome / canvas

1999;141cm x 114cm



enduraChrome / canvas

2002;80cm x 86cm


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