Abstract art can often look like it’s about nothing. But with Josef Albers’ focus on colored squares, there’s plenty going on.

Vulgarizing art

It all comes to nothing, however, when Vestige, a clothing manufacturer imprinting T-shirts with Albers celebrated series "Homage to The Square" invites customers to pick their own color schemes. This not only vulgarizes an artist’s work but also reflects badly on his estate for allowing it to happen.

ARTnews reports that Vestige is letting customers who buy T-shirts emblazoned with Albers’ painting freely “remix” the signature forms.

Not just the forms, but the colors, too. All of which defeats the point of Albers’ homage.

The point

The point of "Homage to The Square" series begins with its description: three or four squares of diminishing sizes placed one on top of the other, like nesting boxes. All the squares are colored with little contrast. From this comes an optical illusion of some squares moving forward and others moving back. The effect stems from both the subtlety of the color changes and the difference in the squares’ sizes.

Oddly unaware of the violation that Vestige is committing, ARTnews blithely notes how Albers’ combinations of small squares inside large squares in varying shades “vibrate against each other.” But no such thing happens in the hands of consumers remixing the artist’s carefully chosen colors and forms.

Gee, thanks!

Indicating a modicum of awareness of this affront to Albers's work, ARTnews added this one-liner to its report: “But it’s impossible to do better than the artist himself.”

Another shock in this story is that Vestige launched the T-shirts in collaboration with the Josef and Anni Albers estate. What the estate had to say piles on the abuse.

Vestige owners Kyle Derleth and Mark DiMuzio told ARTnews that the director of licensing for the Albers’ Foundation, Lucy Swift Weber, “was thrilled with the idea.” How is that possible?

Speaking for themselves, Derleth and DiMuzio told ARTnews, “We’ve long been admirers of Josef Albers.” One wonders how his admirers would allow alterations of his work.

Great care?

As if to lessen the impact of its report, ARTnews said “great care was taken to match Albers’s colors from which customers are allowed to pick. Clearly, the magazine doesn’t get it. The artist was very exacting about the particular color combinations he used. A free-for-all, even if his palette is used, hardly honors his reputation for precision.

Writing of this precision, Albers’ former student at Black Mountain College, Alexander Eliot, noted in an article “Encounters with Artists” in the Atlantic that his teacher was a purist.

For example, Albers would have his class draw letters and numbers in parallel perspective, backward, with the pencil gripped between the toes to learn that control is freedom.” Does that sound like Albers would like what Vestige is doing with his "Homage to the Square?"

Yeah, right

Like ARTnews, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) also thinks nothing of Vestige allowing customers to personalize Albers’ color schemes while proclaiming that the Albers Foundation is “dedicated to preserving” his achievements.

WWD also airily quotes the T-shirt manufacturers saying, “Here at Vestige, we’re passionate about bringing artwork to apparel,” and even cites Lucy Swift Weber touting Vestige as it “captures the spirit of Josef Albers.” Do these people hear themselves?