YES, NO, DON’T KNOW

Paul Elliman

YES, NO, DON’T KNOW
Paul Elliman

A friend of mine in the art history department at Yale recently told me she had just been introduced to the artist Josef Albers at a college Fellows’  Lunch. I said to her No, that’s impossible. She said No, no, it was definitely him. Very old German guy with silver hair, Josef Albers. I said No, it can’t be, he’s been dead twenty-five years. Look, I’ll show you a picture. I had an old catalogue with his portrait on the back page. She said Yes, that’s him, Josef Albers. He was very friendly and it was definitely him.

The idea that he was somehow still around seemed compelling enough and I started to think about both Josef and Anni Albers and their work for the first time in a more grounded way. Not as former people whose presence can only be mediated through historical records and documents, the way artists, or anyone, try to keep in contact with people and ideas from the past. Instead I thought Fuck it, why not make contact with Albers directly.

I had another look at the stencil letters Josef made in 1926. He was at the Bauhaus then, teaching a glass studio. I’ve seen an example of the letters from that time cut out of a large square of glass. Adding the words yes and no it could work as a Ouija board keyboard but I couldn’t find a way to cut the letters in glass so I used Masonite. A kind of hardboard, it’s also an Albers material. His square paintings are made on Masonite in 16, 24 and 40 inch sizes and I saw several ghost versions of these in the storage section at the Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut. Masonite boards with pencil-lines marking out the three squares still waiting to be painted in. I also noticed that Albers gave the finished paintings descriptive subtitles using ethereal terms and casual phrases. Written in pencil on the back of the boards they said things like Aurora, Kind Regards, New Hope, See You Again, Yours In The Forecast. It made me think of Saturday mornings with my grandparents, choosing a horse to bet on as if getting a signal from its name. One of Albers’ squares was titled Apparition.

The séance itself was an odd event though no more inconclusive than any history seminar and with very similar technical issues. I wasn’t sure about the pointer, the so-called planchette, an equivalent to the computer’s mouse or trackpad. A psychic reader on Manhattan’s Lower East Side told me that language was enough. That anyway the letters could be written on the table or even my arm. It wasn’t in the object, she said. It was a lot less tangible than that. It was a kind of energy or faith.

Photography Philippe Fragnière