How to Fake a Josef Albers

by Sarah Thau

last edited on Tue. January 23 2024

Walking through Calling on the Past, I halted in front of Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square. The unassuming painting of rich blue and green nested squares (fig. 1) brought to mind the familiar modern-art-viewer-utterance, “I could do that!” Admittedly, I thought that as well, but continued reflecting—could I do that? Then it dawned on me, forgers have done that—or at least tried—for years.   

I recalled seeing an Homage to the Square forgery in a seminar taught by art conservation titan Christian Scheidemann. He proclaimed, “If you ever see brushstrokes on an Albers square painting, it’s fake.” I checked the Smart’s: no brushstrokes. Still, how could they confidently print “Albers” on the label? 

Starting in 1949, Albers painted over a thousand Homages, each featuring three or four glossy, concentric squares laboriously applied with a pallet knife.[1] The effect is hard to replicate. Yet, as the Albers Foundation states, “Since the early 1970s, numerous Homage to the Square forgeries have appeared on the market. Many . . . have been featured in notable exhibitions, catalogs, and publications alongside genuine artworks.”[2] A good forger doesn’t directly copy an artwork, but works in a similar style, so their fake can be corroborated. However, like brushstrokes on an Albers, forgeries have tells.  

On a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago’s conservation labs, I asked a conservator how good a forgery her lab could make. She responded that it would probably be materially flawless, but might not have the artistic technique to be convincing. In looking at the Smart’s Albers, I would first examine materials. 

Luckily, Albers took notes on the back on many of his Homages: zinc, not titanium white—a common culprit for 20th-century forgeries—is listed on the verso of a similar 1954 work in the Smart’s collection (figs. 2–3).[3] For this 1954 work, the materials were all available when the painting was made.[4] Additionally, the handwriting styles align with those of another Homage (fig. 4). A conservator could analyze the paints and support of the Smart’s 1954 Homage and match them to the 1962 Homage. While I did not analyze the verso of the 1962 Homage firsthand, I am willing to bet it told a very similar story, so, check. 

The next thing to look at is technique. The aforementioned brushstrokes are not there and the composition is exemplary of Albers’s color-play because the layered squares seem to recede, his intended illusion.[5] Check. 

The final test: provenance. When searching the painting for clues, I found a date written on the work: 1\62 is inscribed in the right corner (fig. 5). January, 1962 falls within Alber’s Homage to the Square series timeline, so no hairs raised. Additionally, the credit line notes Andrea L. and John A. Weil gifted the work to the Smart “in memory of Anna und Fritz Moellenhoff.” It seems like a sad mistake to honor late friends with a forgery, so, the history seems reasonable. Check.

While I am no Albers expert, my search convinced me. The materials, techniques, and provenance seem right. Looking back, my detective exercise made me appreciate that this work is much more than three squares. 

Sarah Thau is a second-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago majoring in Biochemistry. While her courses primarily focus on STEM topics, she is particularly interested in the intersections between art and science, and recently served as archival research intern at the Smart Museum. Now, she can often be found in the lab synthesizing colorful quantum dots or pigments. Her interest in the medical applications of her chemistry research will likely lead her to medical school. Along the way, she is having fun figuring out how best to use her skills as a singer and tap dancer to enhance her communication in science and art.

[1] “Jospeh Albers, Homage to the Square: Ascending.” The Whitney. Accessed Aug 18, 2023. 

[2] “For Collectors.” The Joseph and Anni Albers Foundation. Accessed Aug 18, 2023. 

[3] Hardach, Sophie. “The Surprising Secrets of Busting Art Forgeries.” BBC Culture. Oct 19, 2015. Accessed Aug 18, 2023.  

[4] “Luminol.” The Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. Accessed Aug 18, 2023; O’Hanlon, George. “Cadmium Colors – It All Began with Medicine.” Natural Pigments. Nov 26, 2022. Accessed Aug 18, 2023; “The Lucite Story.” Century Manufacturing. Accessed Aug 18, 2023; and “Colour Story: Zinc White.” Winsor and Newton. Aug 18, 2023.   

[5] “Jospeh Albers, Homage to the Square: Ascending.” The Whitney. Accessed Aug 18, 2023.