The art book of the decade

By Felix Salmon
December 15, 2009
New Complete Edition of Interaction of Color, the legendary book by Bauhaus master Josef Albers. And if you know anybody who loves color, or art, or ever took a color class at art school, or just has bibliophilic tendencies, they will remember you fondly forever if you give it to them.


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I recently took possession of one of the most beautiful art objects I own. It’s a book — an absolutely stunning one — and it’s just been published by Yale University Press. It’s the New Complete Edition of Interaction of Color, the legendary book by Bauhaus master Josef Albers. And if you know anybody who loves color, or art, or ever took a color class at art school, or just has bibliophilic tendencies, they will remember you fondly forever if you give it to them.

At $200, it’s not cheap — but for a work of art of this caliber that’s very little indeed, and beside, the book’s only $126 at Amazon. It’s clearly popular: MoMA reportedly sold out their first installment of six copies on the day they got them, while Amazon is already saying that it won’t be able to deliver the book before Christmas. What’s more, the book is subsidized: the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation provided a publication subvention which allowed Yale to make the project work.

It’s worth noting that the original edition of the work also cost $200 — in 1963. That edition used silkscreen prints in dedicated folios, and rapidly became so sought-after that it was never used as intended, as a teaching aid in art schools. Instead, it got collected by museums and libraries, where devotees would put on white gloves and handle it tenderly.

Since then, a paperback, which originally came out in 1971 and which was revised and extended in 2006, has become something of a cult object, selling over 200,000 copies. But even though the revised edition had many more color plates (30, as opposed to the original 5), it was never a patch on the original, which had 145. This new edition has them all, in an easy-to-page-through and gorgeously-bound book; the only writing on each page is some small typography at the bottom which makes it very easy to cross-reference to the accompanying text book (itself a masterpiece of typography). The text on its own can be dense and difficult, but when accompanied by the illustrations, it comes to life immediately, and everything becomes clear. Meanwhile, the illustrations breathe easily on the heavy paper stock, never competing for attention with words.

We’re in a glorious renaissance when it comes to art books right now, thanks largely to the combination of spectacular new printing technology and the efforts of Benedikt Taschen. Interaction of Color achieves things with offset color lithography that Josef Albers could only dream of; it even uses a technique known as stochastic printing to improve the printing quality and to make sure the individual dots are arranged randomly. That means there are never any inadvertent moirĂ© patterns or other eye-tricks. (Of course, there are some optical illusions in the book, but those are deliberate.)

I’m hoping that as printing technology continues to improve, books like this will become increasingly within the reach of consumers and publishers. Art books are much higher quality and much cheaper now than they ever used to be, and that has to be a good thing. This particular book is at the top of the high end, but I’m happy that YUP isn’t doing anything silly with limited editions and whatnot: Michelle Komie, the press’s art and architecture editor, told me she expects it to be in print for at least 6-8 years. (My guess is that it’ll be in print much longer than that.) It’s still a collector’s item, of course: it just that Yale University Press doesn’t feel the need to inject some ersatz scarcity into the market.

This book phase 2 of a three-part project proposed by Komie: the first part was the reissue of the paperback, and the second part is an electronic version (I sincerely hope it’ll be a free website) which will bring Albers’s book truly to everyone. (As well as acting as fantastic marketing for the book.) “These exercises work so well online,” says Komie, who still has a copy of a now-outdated 1993 CD-Rom. It could be the best example yet of synergy, in the art-book world, between websites and physical books. Well done to YUP on this achievement, and may the website come soon!

Update: I should add that one of the things which makes this book so great is that the plates aren’t reproductions of something else: you’re seeing exactly what you’re meant to see, without having to imagine “what it looks like in real life”. That’s rare, but not unprecedented, in art books.

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