BY Nicholas Fox Weber in Opinion | 01 OCT 20

The Artist Who Inspired Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The late US Supreme Court Justice was deeply moved by the sense of balance and musicality in the works by Josef Albers that hung in her chambers

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BY Nicholas Fox Weber in Opinion | 01 OCT 20

From 1951 until 1982, the Museum of Modern Art in New York used to run what it called the Art Lending Service. Established by the museum’s junior council, it permitted members to go to the sixth floor and see what was on the walls or in the flat files that could be rented, according to a 1963 museum press release, ‘for a two or three month period at fees ranging from US$5 to US$52’. The rules were precise. The rental came with an option to buy: ‘If the borrower decides to purchase the work after having had the opportunity to live with it, the rental fee is deducted from the purchased price. Renewals are not permitted.’

Imagine! With only one sheet of paperwork and no fear of damage, the programme gave people of relatively limited means the chance to grace their lives with original art by, among others: Josef Albers, Georges Braque, André Derain, Barbara Hepworth, Elie Nadelman, Saul Steinberg and Édouard Vuillard.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers, Washington, D.C., 2013. Courtesy: Getty Images; photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg 

One young couple who were loyal members of the Modern (before it was referred to as MoMA) were Martin and Ruth Ginsburg. They borrowed a print by Albers. It was the first artwork to enter their lives following their marriage in 1954. Like their romance with one another, this print from Albers’s ‘Variant’ series (1947–67) was a case of love at first sight and a source of fidelity, loyalty, admiration and ongoing learning that they would share for the rest of their lives.

The Ginsburgs could not afford to buy the signed screenprint, but they bought and treasured an Albers reproduction from the museum shop. Eventually, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had, in her office at the Supreme Court, two Albers oil paintings from this same series. She chose them with utmost care. Both belonged to government institutions. In 2011, when Variant: On Tideland (1947–55) – on loan to the Supreme Court from the National Museum of American Art – was removed from her office wall for a touring show, Ginsburg was asked in an interview with NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenburg when she might retire. ‘Not until I get my Albers back,’ she replied.

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Josef Albers, Structural Constellation F-32 Pericles, 1954, machine-engraved plastic laminate mounted on wood, 43 × 57 cm. Courtesy: © 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

That this woman whom I deified loved the vision of the artist whose Foundation I have run since the mid-1970s gave me an excuse, in the late 1990s, to get in touch with her. You can hardly imagine the graciousness and warmth of her responses from the time we began our correspondence. I had seen, in The New York Times Magazine, a picture of the extraordinary Ginsburg with an Albers Variant behind her. It was an excuse to send her the catalogue of the Josef Albers Centenary Retrospective that I had curated at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1988, and for which I had chosen a celestial blue and red Variant for the cover. The succinct, upbeat writing style of her thank-you letter, on official Supreme Court of the United States stationery – so imposing with its typography resembling the original Declaration of Independence – sings to this day: ‘The beautiful Josef Albers book delivered to my chambers today came as a grand surprise. I will treasure it. Were the briefs not piled high on my work table, I would have spent hours with the retrospective.’

RBG obviously spent some time looking through the catalogue because, at the bottom of her dictated letter, she wrote, by hand, that she wondered where she could find a reproduction of one of Albers’s ‘Treble Clefs’ (1932–35), of which there are a number in that catalogue. It was for ‘my son, the music maker’. Ginsburg’s passion for music was well-known: a cellist in high school, she loved performing in the orchestra, claiming in a 2012 Washingtonian interview that her ‘dream place as a child’ was the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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Josef Albers, K G, 1966, screenprint, 43 × 43 cm. Courtesy; © 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photograph: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Few painters were more musical than Albers: his repetitions conjured Johann Sebastian Bach and he had the ability to make individual colours, like the instruments in a quartet, flourish both on their own and in tandem with the other hues accompanying them. Colours, like musical instruments, can function ‘independently and interdependently’, as Albers often said to me.

Ginsburg was pleased when, after her first cancer diagnosis, the Albers Foundation gifted a print of the yellow Homage to the Square (1961) to the Supreme Court. I explained that Albers considered yellow the colour of healing. Ginsburg wrote: ‘I was surprised and delighted to receive the treasure you mailed me. The Court’s Curator will assist me in arranging for a suitable frame. Each day, as I make my way back to good health, Albers’s vibrant colours will brighten my spirits.’

Ginsburg approved of my idea that Albers’s white on black Structural Constellation: Pericles (1954), which the artist likened to the tablets of justice held in a balance that looks precarious but is actually fixed – one parallelogram appearing higher than the other when, in fact, they are positioned at the same level – might be used in some way as a symbol for the court. The project never happened, but Ginsburg relished the notion that balance, and the difficulty of seeing it, could be embodied in an artwork.

In January 2019, I wrote to Ginsburg that, at a dinner following the opening of ‘Sonic Albers’ at David Zwirner, just after she had faced another bout of illness, I had honoured her in my toast, and that people were in absolute rapture to hear of her love for Albers’s work. Of course, what they loved most of all was to think of Ginsburg herself: her values, her courage, her gifts to humankind. Every time I read her response, I choke:       

‘It will be a long haul but, bit by bit, I am making my way back to good health. Your January 18 letter, received today, lifted my spirits sky-high. I was glad to hear about the show at the David Zwirner Gallery, and overjoyed to have the books you sent.

With huge appreciation and every best wish, 
Ruth’

Main Image: Josef Albers, On Tideland, 1947–1955, oil on fiberboard. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia and Phillip Frost

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