Courtesy of the YUAG

Josef Albers’ “Homage to the Square” paintings may be among the most well-known of his pieces, but in this exhibit, it is the crudely carven four-footed tray next to “Homage to the Square” that we are encouraged to appreciate instead. Part artistic travel itinerary, part historical exploration of ancient Latin American civilizations, “Small-Great Objects: Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas” pays homage not so much to Anni Albers’ textiles or Josef Albers’ abstract compositions, but to the relics that inspired the two artists.

The phrase “small-great objects” is taken from Anni Albers’ description of the clay figurines that she and her husband collected over many years. These figurines make up much of the exhibit, and in studying the diversity of bodies portrayed through such simple forms, one can understand the Albers’ fascination. A group of pre-Hispanic female figurines, for example, are all assembled from basic ceramic spheres, pyramids and cubes. Minor yet crucial variations in features, accessories, expression and posture distinguish them, so that no two are the same. In Anni Albers’ textile works and Josef Albers’ drawings and paintings, we see this same motif of geometric shapes emerge over and over again, each time made interesting by subtle variations.

In addition to purchasing and preserving these figurines, Albers also sketched and photographed them. He drew “Male Figurine with Hands on Knees” from different angles and even referred to it as a reflection of himself, a “modern man.” His photographs take this idea of the figurine as a proxy for flesh and blood one step further. In exposing the various ways in which light and perspective can change our perception of an object, Albers makes the figurine perform the duties of a human model.

Yet the transformation of inanimate figurine into dynamic model is not all that Albers accomplishes in his photographs. His gelatin silver prints of architecture focus on patterns and the myriad ways an object can occupy three-dimensional space. He alternatively portrays a particular architectural detail in its structural context — how it enhances the whole building’s presentation — and as an individual component, dominant and complete in itself. Albers’ photographs of the protruding hook nose of Chaac, the Mayan rain god, contrast the shadows of its protrusions on the front of the wall with the exaggerated shape of the nose in the side view. Although the same architectural feature is shown, in one case we concentrate on the nose’s larger impact, whereas in the other we are drawn to study its distinctive shape.

Small, singular parts can achieve an effect just as powerful as the whole, but the joining of independent parts is rich with artistic interpretation as well. Albers’ lithograph, “Sanctuary,” uses the differing boldness of the unbroken lines and the overall mazelike design to give viewers a sense of looking down into the center of a terraced temple similar to those found at Mesoamerican archaeological sites. Meanwhile, Anni Albers’ textiles join both the separate strands of fiber and the varied geometric patterns into a means of communication. Woven into her “Code” is a message to be deciphered. In creating this piece, Albers alludes to the history of using durable and light textiles as a way for ancient civilizations to send messages — they were easy to transport and not easily damaged by the journey. Albers similarly draws inspiration from jewelry artifacts; after seeing a colorful bead necklace, she created necklaces in the same style from found objects like bobby pins and paperclips on a sink strainer.

To develop their artistic insights, Anni and Josef Albers frequently returned to the traditions and cultures of the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Despite the widespread misconception that such art was “primitive,” the Albers were convinced that the pieces were timelessly sophisticated in form and design, that in the figurines “monumental and meaningful could lie in the handheld.” The magic of small objects lies in their willingness and flexibility to be manipulated, to be able to convey more when approached with a different artistic vision and still remain playful, clever and reverent.

“Small-Great Objects: Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas” is on view at the Yale University Art Gallery until June 18th.

Contact Tiana Wang at tianru.wang@yale.edu .