Homage to Mexico: Josef Albers and His Reality-Based Abstraction

A radiant Guggenheim exhibition grounds the proto-Minimalist abstract paintings of Josef Albers in the geometric grandeur of Mesoamerican monuments.

Art rarely thrives in a vacuum. It is by definition polyglot and in flux, buffeted by the movement of art objects, goods and people across borders and among cultures, and also by individual passion. This much, especially the passion part, is demonstrated by “Josef Albers in Mexico,” a quietly stunning exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum that contrasts Albers’s little-known photographs of the great Mesoamerican monuments of Mexico with his glowing abstract paintings.

The show grounds this German-born artist’s paintings in his Mexican travels between 1935 and 1967, clarifying his creative debt to the pre-Hispanic world. It reveals an artist from one culture being blown away by the achievements of another culture, and making work that might otherwise not have been possible without a change of scene.

These paintings are among the pinnacles of pure abstraction — if you believe in pure abstraction. But this beautiful exhibition may destabilize that faith. All art is reality-based, derived in part from looking long and hard at whatever chooses you. In Albers case, “Homage to Mexico” might have been a more accurate title.

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