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Leonardo

A Critical Account of Some of Joseph Albers' Concepts of Color


Author(s): Rudolf Arnheim and Alan Lee
Source: Leonardo, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Spring, 1982), pp. 174-175
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1574592 .
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Leonardo, Vol.
15, No.
2, pp. 174-176,
1982
Printed in Great Britain
0024-094X/82/020174-03$03.00/0
Pergamon
Press Ltd.
LETTERS
Readers' comments are welcomed on texts
published
in Leonardo. The Editors reserve the
right
to shorten letters.
Letters should be written in
English
or in French.
A CRITICAL ACCOUNT OF SOME OF JOSEPH ALBERS'
CONCEPTS OF COLOR
Alan Lee's critical review (Leonardo 14,
99
(1981))
of Josef
Albers' Interaction
of
Color is of considerable interest. In
addition to some of the more technical corrections that are
needed, Lee
points
to two more
general misunderstandings
that
deserve to be stressed because
they
are shared
by
so
many
practitioners
of the arts. One of
them,
the confusion between
colors as
percepts
and their
physical
and
physiological
equivalents,
occurs in the
programmatic statement, quoted by
Lee,
on the first
page
of Albers' Introduction: 'In visual
perception
a color is almost never seen as it
really
is-as it
physically
is'
[1].
The
physical equivalent
of a color can be
isolated and identified
by measurement,
but the
percept
of a
color can neither be isolated nor determined
by
a colorimeter.
There is no such
thing
as 'the color as it
really is", since
any
color
is
always
influenced
by
the context in which it is seen. Color is a
most
exasperating
demonstration of the
gestalt
thesis that the
appearance
of a
perceived object depends
on what is seen around
it.
It is curious that an artist so committed to the inter-relations of
colors was
willing
to denounce these
gestalt
effects as
'deceptions'.
Lee
points
out
correctly
that in the arts the
eye
is the
final
judge
and that when in a color
pattern
two
samples
cut from
the same
piece
of colored
paper
look
different, perhaps through
contrast,
that difference is the ultimate visual
reality.
The other more
general misunderstanding
concerns the
popular
belief that additive combinations of colours are limited
to
lights
whereas subtractive combinations occur with
pigments.
I can refer here to what I have
explained
elsewhere
[2].
In
dealing
with this
issue, however, Lee himself made a statement that
puzzled
me. He denounced as incorrect the criterion 'that those
mixtures that
produce
colors
lighter
than the
parent
colors are
additive mixtures while those that
produce
colors darker than the
parent
colors are subtractive'.
When I checked with Alan Lee, he
pointed
out in a letter that
when two colored
lights
are
additively superposed
on a white
screen, no
light
is
gained
because 'the area illuminated is halved
while the
brightness
is a
simple
sum of the two
lights'.
This is
correct,
but the fact remains that the area of the
superposition
is
physically
and
perceptually brighter
than the
parent
colors.
When addition is obtained on a
rotating
color
wheel,
the two
brightness
values are
'averaged',
that
is, explains Lee,
'the result
will be
necessarily lighter
than the darker
parent
and darker than
the
lighter parent'. (I
will not
report
here Lee's
argument
concerning
subtractive color combinations since it is based on
the
mixing
of
pigments, which, as he himself
admits, always
involves an uncontrollable combination of additive and
subtractive
effects.)
In an area so intricate and treacherous as color
theory,
clarifications and corrections are
urgently needed, especially
when
they
refer to
prestigious
sources. I will mention here an
exchange
of letters I had with Josef Albers after I had been
astonished to find in his book references to what he called
Goethe's color
triangle.
In the 1971
edition,
he noted at the end
of an extensive
preface:
'And I am
really pleased
that the Goethe
Color
Triangle
is shown here on the back cover, and more, that
the
reproduction permits
us to follow its
great subdivisions and
Goethe's sensitive characterization of the various
groups (see
page 67)
... Notice also that Goethe's
arrangement
of nine basic
colors is
probably
the
only
one
demonstrating
the relatedness of
primary
to
secondary plus tertiary
colors-in-two dimensions'.
And on
page
66 he referred to 'the
rarely published
beautiful
Goethe
Triangle'.
When I wrote to Albers to
say that,
to the best of
my
knowledge,
no such triangle existed in Goethe's
Theory of Color,
I received in
reply
a letter, handwritten in German and dated 14
March 1973. I believe I commit no indiscretion if I
publish
a
translation of this
important
document. Albers wrote:
'Dear Mr. Arnheim,
Your letter of March 9 contained a
great surprise
for me, and I
began right away
to make notes for an answer to
you [to
the
effect
that] my reading
of Goethe's
Theory of
Colors
goes
back to
a far-distant
past, probably
to a time before I
joined
the Bauhaus
in 1920 when I was 32
years old; and that in Weimar the few
people
who cared about color knew the Goethe
triangle
and
referred to it as such. Then came the festivities for
my
85th
birthday-in
which
you, too, may
have had a share since the
[Harvard] Carpenter
Center sent me
flowers-anyway, many
thanks.
Unfortunately
none of the color-Weimarians are still
available so that one could
inquire.
I thereore searched for the
book that connected us with
[Adolf]
Holzel at the time-the man
whom we considered most
competent
on Goethe.
Among
his
students who were at the Bauhaus were Itten
(whose eight [sic]
color contrasts derive from
Holzel), Schlemmer, Hirschfeld-
Mack, and Ida Kerkovius. Of them, Hirschfeld was the closest to
me. He on his own
[auf eigene Faust] gave
a color course in
Weimar,
which was
occasionally
attended
by
Klee and
Kandinsky.
He
may
well have been the first to show me a Goethe
triangle,
for it was he who
acquainted
me with the above-
mentioned book:
Carry
van Biema
(a
student of
Holzel): Farben
und Formen als
lebendige Krdfte (Jena: Eugen Diederichs, 1930).
I am
enclosing
the book to show
you
from where I knew Goethe's
original triangle
and also how he named the color
groups
contained in it.
It is
only your question
that made me look
through
the book
again.
I find that the
triangle
is called there "the well-known
nine-part triangle"-and nothing
else-and that the color
groups
are
designated only
as "color
moods"-not, however, as
deriving
from "him". It follows that in the German edition of
my
Interaction
of
Color I have to rename the
triangle
in
question
and
call it
"Nine-part
Color
Triangle".
I shall instruct
my publisher
accordingly.
I am
grateful
to
you
for
having
led me to
making
this correction.
With cordial
regards
and best wishes
Yours, Josef Albers.'
In the revised American edition of 1975
[1]
the
preface,
reduced to half a
page,
indicated that the text contained
'very
few
corrections of errors and that have come to
light
over the
years'.
The
preface
no
longer
referred to Goethe. On
page
66 the
reference had been changed to 'the
rarely published equilateral
triangle'.
174
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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
(i.e.
the
painting)
'Mona Lisa'. If one wishes to use these two
historical
examples
as a basis for
comparison (for
whatever
reason)
then what must be
compared
are: on the one hand, the
physical person
Mona Lisa
(who
existed without Leonardo da
Vinci)
and the
physical phenomenon radioactivity, with,
on the
other
hand, the artifact 'Mona Lisa' and the document
(i.e.
artifact)
on
radioactivity
that
Becquerel
sent to the French
Academy
on 24
February
1896.
Implicit
in
my argument,
of
course,
is an anti-realist view of
science,
but
my study
of
history
of science
compels
me toward such a
position.
In
fact,
I would
go
so far as to
say
that the
Theory
of
Relativity
(as we know it
today)
would not have existed without Albert Einstein.
David
Topper
Associate
Professor
Department of History
University of Winnipeg
Winnipeg,
Manitoba
R3B 2E9 Canada
The criticism of
my
text in Leonardo 14,
144
(1981) by
David R.
Topper
in his letter
(above)
is based on a
misunderstanding.
I had
no intention of
establishing
a
'logical comparison'
between the
painting
entitled 'Mona Lisa'
by
Leonardo da Vinci and the
phenomenon
of
radioactivity,
discovered
by Henry Becquerel.
I
merely
wished to state two facts:
(1)
There were
many
beautiful women in
Italy
at the time of Leonardo da Vinci but
without him the
painting
would not have come into existence.
The
important
fact here is not the
'discovery'
of the
beauty
of
Mona Lisa
by
him but his 'artifact',
in
Topper's
terms.
(2)
The
radioactive
phenomenon
of uranium atoms has existed for
billions of
years
and will
persist;
scientists of the 19th
Century
had available instruments
capable
of
detecting
this
phenomenon.
Becquerel
was the first to take
advantage
of the
sensitivity
of a
photographic plate
for this
purpose,
but if he had not done it,
another
physicist
would have done it some time later.
It is understood that no
single
scientist is the
possessor
of a
phenomenon
discovered.
(In fact, phenomena
cannot be
patented-only
their
possible
technical
application.)
As soon as
a
phenomenon
has been verified
by
other scientists,
it
belongs
to
the scientific
description
of the world, collectively provided by
the
community
of scientists. The foundations of the
Theory
of
Relativity
were
prepared by
a number of
physicists
and
mathematicians,
for
example
H. A.
Lorentz,
H. Poincare and H.
Minkowski, before Einstein
gave
it its
present
form, but to
say
that the
Theory
of
Relativity
would not exist but for Einstein
'makes no
sense',
to use the
expression
that
Topper
used in his
letter!
Pierre
Auger
12 Rue Emile
Faguet
75014 Paris, France
(i.e.
the
painting)
'Mona Lisa'. If one wishes to use these two
historical
examples
as a basis for
comparison (for
whatever
reason)
then what must be
compared
are: on the one hand, the
physical person
Mona Lisa
(who
existed without Leonardo da
Vinci)
and the
physical phenomenon radioactivity, with,
on the
other
hand, the artifact 'Mona Lisa' and the document
(i.e.
artifact)
on
radioactivity
that
Becquerel
sent to the French
Academy
on 24
February
1896.
Implicit
in
my argument,
of
course,
is an anti-realist view of
science,
but
my study
of
history
of science
compels
me toward such a
position.
In
fact,
I would
go
so far as to
say
that the
Theory
of
Relativity
(as we know it
today)
would not have existed without Albert Einstein.
David
Topper
Associate
Professor
Department of History
University of Winnipeg
Winnipeg,
Manitoba
R3B 2E9 Canada
The criticism of
my
text in Leonardo 14,
144
(1981) by
David R.
Topper
in his letter
(above)
is based on a
misunderstanding.
I had
no intention of
establishing
a
'logical comparison'
between the
painting
entitled 'Mona Lisa'
by
Leonardo da Vinci and the
phenomenon
of
radioactivity,
discovered
by Henry Becquerel.
I
merely
wished to state two facts:
(1)
There were
many
beautiful women in
Italy
at the time of Leonardo da Vinci but
without him the
painting
would not have come into existence.
The
important
fact here is not the
'discovery'
of the
beauty
of
Mona Lisa
by
him but his 'artifact',
in
Topper's
terms.
(2)
The
radioactive
phenomenon
of uranium atoms has existed for
billions of
years
and will
persist;
scientists of the 19th
Century
had available instruments
capable
of
detecting
this
phenomenon.
Becquerel
was the first to take
advantage
of the
sensitivity
of a
photographic plate
for this
purpose,
but if he had not done it,
another
physicist
would have done it some time later.
It is understood that no
single
scientist is the
possessor
of a
phenomenon
discovered.
(In fact, phenomena
cannot be
patented-only
their
possible
technical
application.)
As soon as
a
phenomenon
has been verified
by
other scientists,
it
belongs
to
the scientific
description
of the world, collectively provided by
the
community
of scientists. The foundations of the
Theory
of
Relativity
were
prepared by
a number of
physicists
and
mathematicians,
for
example
H. A.
Lorentz,
H. Poincare and H.
Minkowski, before Einstein
gave
it its
present
form, but to
say
that the
Theory
of
Relativity
would not exist but for Einstein
'makes no
sense',
to use the
expression
that
Topper
used in his
letter!
Pierre
Auger
12 Rue Emile
Faguet
75014 Paris, France
I will
only
add that
although
the
nine-part triangle
does indeed
refer to the
tertiary colors,
it contains
only
three of the six.
Arbitrarily chosen, as far as I can see, it uses the intermediaries
between red and
purple, yellow
and
green,
and
green
and
blue,
but omits those between red and
orange, yellow
and
orange,
and
blue and
purple.
As
distinguished
from the usual color circles,
e.g.
those
given by
Itten
[3],
the
triangle
is therefore more
confusing
than instructive.
References
1. Josef Albers, Interaction
of
Color.
(New
Haven: Yale
University Press, 1971 and
1975).
2. Rudolf
Arnheim,
Art and Visual
Perception. (Berkeley
and
Los
Angeles: University
of California Press, 1974) pp.
341 ff.
3. Johannes Itten, The Art
of
Color.
(New
York: Reinhold,
1961).
Rudolf Arnheim
1133 South Seventh Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103, U.S.A.
I welcome Dr. Arnheim's letter and the information about the
history
of Goethe's influence
upon
Albers. It is not
surprising
that
Goethe, writing
in 1810,
should have failed to understand the
important
differences between the mixture of
pigments
and the
mixture of
light.
But for Albers and Itten to have followed
Goethe
required
that
they ignore
what had been
widely
understood since the middle of the nineteenth
century. Notably,
they ignored
the
scientifically enlightened system
of Ostwald.
Faber Birren,
in his introduction to Ostwald's The Color Primer
(New York, Reinhold, 1969),
informs us that 'Ostwald
energie'
reached the entire German educational
system
and that 'Walter
Gropius,
the founder
[of
the
Bauhaus],
installed Ostwald's
charts and
spinning
devices in the
lobby
of the school'. Itten,
in
The Art
of Color, gives
a colour circle based
upon pigment
mixture and at numerous
places
shows a failure to
comprehend
the more fundamental
system
of colour relations based
upon
additive mixture. This is shown most
explicitly
on
page
23 where
he defends the
arrangement
of his own colour circle: 'In
Ostwald's color circle the blue stands
opposite
to a
yellow,
the
pigmentary
mixture
yielding green.
This fundamental difference
in construction means that Ostwald's color circle is not
serviceable to
painting
and the
applied
arts'.
Although
it
presumably represents
Itten's beliefs,
the crucial last sentence has
been excised from the condensed version of Itten's book (The
Elements
of Color, New York, Reinhold, 1970) prepared
after the
author's death
by
Faber Birren.
Both Albers and Itten are influential in
contemporary
art
education
partly
because in their
systems they promise
to teach a
method for the artistic
employment
of colour;
not
merely
facts.
But I have come to believe that their
systems actually grew
from
their
misunderstanding
of the
physics, physiology
and
psychology
of colour.
Alan Lee
Visual Arts
Flinders
University
Bedford
Park 5042
A ustralia
ON CREATIVITY AND DISCOVERY IN THE FINE ARTS
AND IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES
Too
many essays, purporting
to cast
light upon
the
relationships
between art and science, are based
upon spurious analogies.
A case
in
point
is the first sentence
(the 'starting point')
of Pierre
Auger's
contribution to the Leonardo
symposium
on the Natural Sciences
and Visual Fine Arts
(Leonardo 14,
144
(1981)).
The
I will
only
add that
although
the
nine-part triangle
does indeed
refer to the
tertiary colors,
it contains
only
three of the six.
Arbitrarily chosen, as far as I can see, it uses the intermediaries
between red and
purple, yellow
and
green,
and
green
and
blue,
but omits those between red and
orange, yellow
and
orange,
and
blue and
purple.
As
distinguished
from the usual color circles,
e.g.
those
given by
Itten
[3],
the
triangle
is therefore more
confusing
than instructive.
References
1. Josef Albers, Interaction
of
Color.
(New
Haven: Yale
University Press, 1971 and
1975).
2. Rudolf
Arnheim,
Art and Visual
Perception. (Berkeley
and
Los
Angeles: University
of California Press, 1974) pp.
341 ff.
3. Johannes Itten, The Art
of
Color.
(New
York: Reinhold,
1961).
Rudolf Arnheim
1133 South Seventh Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103, U.S.A.
I welcome Dr. Arnheim's letter and the information about the
history
of Goethe's influence
upon
Albers. It is not
surprising
that
Goethe, writing
in 1810,
should have failed to understand the
important
differences between the mixture of
pigments
and the
mixture of
light.
But for Albers and Itten to have followed
Goethe
required
that
they ignore
what had been
widely
understood since the middle of the nineteenth
century. Notably,
they ignored
the
scientifically enlightened system
of Ostwald.
Faber Birren,
in his introduction to Ostwald's The Color Primer
(New York, Reinhold, 1969),
informs us that 'Ostwald
energie'
reached the entire German educational
system
and that 'Walter
Gropius,
the founder
[of
the
Bauhaus],
installed Ostwald's
charts and
spinning
devices in the
lobby
of the school'. Itten,
in
The Art
of Color, gives
a colour circle based
upon pigment
mixture and at numerous
places
shows a failure to
comprehend
the more fundamental
system
of colour relations based
upon
additive mixture. This is shown most
explicitly
on
page
23 where
he defends the
arrangement
of his own colour circle: 'In
Ostwald's color circle the blue stands
opposite
to a
yellow,
the
pigmentary
mixture
yielding green.
This fundamental difference
in construction means that Ostwald's color circle is not
serviceable to
painting
and the
applied
arts'.
Although
it
presumably represents
Itten's beliefs,
the crucial last sentence has
been excised from the condensed version of Itten's book (The
Elements
of Color, New York, Reinhold, 1970) prepared
after the
author's death
by
Faber Birren.
Both Albers and Itten are influential in
contemporary
art
education
partly
because in their
systems they promise
to teach a
method for the artistic
employment
of colour;
not
merely
facts.
But I have come to believe that their
systems actually grew
from
their
misunderstanding
of the
physics, physiology
and
psychology
of colour.
Alan Lee
Visual Arts
Flinders
University
Bedford
Park 5042
A ustralia
ON CREATIVITY AND DISCOVERY IN THE FINE ARTS
AND IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES
Too
many essays, purporting
to cast
light upon
the
relationships
between art and science, are based
upon spurious analogies.
A case
in
point
is the first sentence
(the 'starting point')
of Pierre
Auger's
contribution to the Leonardo
symposium
on the Natural Sciences
and Visual Fine Arts
(Leonardo 14,
144
(1981)).
The
analogy-that
the 'Mona Lisa' would not have existed without
Leonardo,
but that
radioactivity
would have been discovered
without
Becquerel-makes
no sense. The
physical phenomenon
(radioactivity)
cannot be
compared logically
with the artifact
analogy-that
the 'Mona Lisa' would not have existed without
Leonardo,
but that
radioactivity
would have been discovered
without
Becquerel-makes
no sense. The
physical phenomenon
(radioactivity)
cannot be
compared logically
with the artifact
My
criticism of the first sentence of Pieere
Auger's
article in
Leonardo 14,
144
(1981)
has not
changed.
That there were
many
apparent precursors
of
Relativity
around 1900 is an historical
fact. But it is also true that
nobody
was
thinking
about Nature
quite
like Albert Einstein. Others were
working
from the
viewpoint
of
model-building.
But
only
Einstein was
thinking
in
terms of
measuring
rods and clock
readings
that are
independent
of such models. No one was
pursuing
Nature this
way,
and hence
without him the
special
and
general
theories of
Relativity (as
we
know them
today)
would not exist. I stand
by
what I wrote.
Moreover,
since this debate has arisen,
I should like to fan the
flames
by pointing
out the
irrationality
of the third sentence in
Auger's
article,
that 'if a natural
catastrophe
or human action
such a a war
destroyed
scientific
knowledge... [it]
could be
reconstructed ...' But can one
honestly
believe that matrix
mechanics and
Schrodinger's Equation
would be 'reconstructed'?
My
criticism of the first sentence of Pieere
Auger's
article in
Leonardo 14,
144
(1981)
has not
changed.
That there were
many
apparent precursors
of
Relativity
around 1900 is an historical
fact. But it is also true that
nobody
was
thinking
about Nature
quite
like Albert Einstein. Others were
working
from the
viewpoint
of
model-building.
But
only
Einstein was
thinking
in
terms of
measuring
rods and clock
readings
that are
independent
of such models. No one was
pursuing
Nature this
way,
and hence
without him the
special
and
general
theories of
Relativity (as
we
know them
today)
would not exist. I stand
by
what I wrote.
Moreover,
since this debate has arisen,
I should like to fan the
flames
by pointing
out the
irrationality
of the third sentence in
Auger's
article,
that 'if a natural
catastrophe
or human action
such a a war
destroyed
scientific
knowledge... [it]
could be
reconstructed ...' But can one
honestly
believe that matrix
mechanics and
Schrodinger's Equation
would be 'reconstructed'?
Letters Letters 175 175
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