In Albers’s universe, color seduced, beguiled, schwindled. These characteristics made color the most fascinating of art’s formal elements.
Albers’s passion for color prompted his decision to launch what was possibly the first full-blown course in color ever given anywhere, and certainly the first based exclusively on direct observation of color’s behavior. . . . Color behaved. Color was magic.
For several hundred years, however, color had been science. Newton’s discovery that light generates color dispelled much of the speculation that had built up around the nature of color, and encouraged objective, scientific study. The seven spectrum colors that he observed emerging from his prism, each blending into the next, suggested that color was essentially a physical phenomenon having a natural order. Bending the spectrum and joining its ends, he created the first color circle. Various other circles and globes appeared in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, each attempting to make comprehensible the stubbornly elusive nature of their subject by arranging it into a logical and orderly pattern. By the early twentieth century, the study of various wheels and globes was absorbed into art school training, including the Bauhaus, based on the idea that knowledge of the inherent order of color would benefit the artist.
To Albers’s mind, such studies had little practical value for the artist. As he noted at the outset of Interaction of Color:
In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.
In place of systems, Albers developed an “experimental way of studying color and teaching color,” a method based on the idea that only by observing color in the push and tug and pull of context can one begin to understand the nature of color. His color course, which he inaugurated at Black Mountain College, comprised a sequence of simple exercises, each of which isolated some aspect of color interaction so as to observe that interaction carefully. As presented in the course, these exercises were essentially challenges: Can you get these colors to do this? Can you find the colors that will do that? Although Albers characterized color as “passive,” “deceptive,” and “unstable,” he recognized that its behavior was, to some extent, predictable. His exercises therefore focused on color in specific contexts, showing that if you put color A next to color B, or these colors next to those, you could anticipate certain results. Moving from simple to complex, with many exercises exploring the ramifications of a previous one, the course awakened the students to the quirks and variables of color behavior. The course was not a fixed body of color wisdom, but rather an ongoing inquiry in which solutions were not conclusions, but steps on an endless path.
The course reached its fullest development at Yale, where the publication of Albers’s landmark Interaction of Color in 1963 crowned thirty years of effort. Generally following the sequence of exercises as they were presented in the course, Interaction of Color contains Albers’s introductions to the exercises, a portfolio of some two hundred reproductions, mainly created by his students, and an additional section of Albers’s commentaries on the plates. Dedicating the book to his students, Albers acknowledged their help in having “visualized and discovered new problems, new solutions, and new presentations.”
In 1971 Albers collaborated with Yale University Press to issue a small pocket edition of Interaction of Color and in 1972 a complete German edition and a paperback in German were published. These were followed by Finnish, Japanese, French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Norwegian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean paperback editions, all still in print.