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Josef Albers Print Retrospective

At Alan Cristea Gallery, 31 Cork Street, London W1 until 8 May

It's easy to see why architects of a certain age like Josef Albers, writes Jeremy Melvin. He was one of the stars at the Bauhaus, where painting and architecture came into uneasy proximity; later he taught at Black Mountain College and then in 1950 became chairman of the department of architecture and design at the University of Yale. His colour school boiled down principles of composition to those nice bite-sized visual dictums with which Modernist architects felt so comfortable - Harry Seidler was one who studied under him. Many more found solace in Albers' visual explorations which implied that composition, form and space, rather than decoration, could carry emotive force.

What emerges in this exhibition of Albers' prints at the Alan Cristea Gallery is how few and simple were Albers' visual techniques. Some figurative early works (a self-portrait, the interior of a cathedral) show an affinity with Expressionism and even hint at Romanticism - but he eschewed these directions for an abstracted exploration of shape and colour, and their capacity to suggest space. Works of the late 1940s, such as Astatic Object in Space, play with the two-dimensional representation of intersecting planes to create a three-dimensional object in space, just as some architects play with the capacity of Mobius strip to create form. Later works, such as the Homage to the Square series, take to the limit the positioning of three or four squares within each other to make a vestigial perspectival representation of space (see far left, Blue Reminding, 1966).

It is remarkable how this limited repertoire of compositions, especially when matched with a limited colour palette, can create intriguing images - at once mnemonic and abstract, two-dimensional yet also denoting finite space beyond the picture plane. But the power comes through their abstractions and reductions in a pictorial mode; when translated, and often cack-handedly, into architecture, those reductions cannot be abstract. Architecture does not have the luxury of representating three dimensions in two; it is inevitably three-dimensional. What in pictures can be an engaging abstraction becomes in architecture an irritating conceit.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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