Herb Aach


Sketch of 17R
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Herb Aach in his studio, ~1962

Herb Aach was recognized by the New York art scene of the 1960s-80s for his individual and unique use of color. Born in Cologne, Germany in 1923, Aach studied painting as a young boy with expressionist Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966), for whom he also served as atelier boy, until Nazi persecution forced his immediate family to flee to New York, where he arrived in 1938. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and became a United States citizen in 1943. The Army sent him back to Europe where he later served in Military Government in Kassel, Germany. Upon his return to New York in 1946, he resumed his art studies at The Brooklyn Museum Art School with John Ferren and Rufino Tamayo. He would always consider himself an American painter. In 1948, after marrying, he moved to Mexico for two years to study art at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura in Mexico City.

It was in this period that, in part due to the influence of John Ferren, Aach acquired the strong preoccupation with color that shaped the rest of his career. For nearly 10 years, between 1954 and 1963, he experimented with and consolidated his thinking about color, developing a style he called color expressionism in the relative isolation of Hazleton, PA, where while formulating paints for the Art Crayon Company, he gained access to otherwise unobtainable pigments. A note on the back of one painting from this period reads "This is most likely the first painting to use the new Monastral reds, yellow, and blue shades, developed by Dupont. Pigments were lab samples prior to plant production given to me and began use on April 30, 1958." He made his own paints and packed them with pigment, and by the mid 1960s, because of their intensity and inner light, he turned to fluorescent pigments.

Split Infinity B12S, 1974,
40" x 30"

Aach continued to develop these ideas on his return to New York in 1963. He began teaching at Queens College in 1965, where he taught studio courses and color theory. Seeking a purer framework in which to explore color relationships, Aach abandoned the sensuous brush strokes of his earlier paintings and began working with larger regions of color (see Three Muses). He quickly became a favorite of students and was featured in the 1968 yearbook in a special section entitled "We love you Mr. Aach!" By 1969, he began working out a theory of color through experiments that featured large series of paintings whose colors and shapes were programmed. Color relationships were central, built on innate physiological predispositions, and color was therefore too important to waste as a mere "label" for establishing objectural references. He credited as influences the impressionists, post-impressionists, and expressionists (thus, e.g., Bonnard Country), whom he revered as having first liberated color from form and subject matter. He also cited Giotto, whose "dry, matter of fact, but not local" color was both non-personal and non-intuitive. Aach produced a major book in 1971 as American editor and translator of the Matthei edition of Goethe's Color Theory, and a major series of paintings in 1974 based on his color theory (see Precession of the Equinoxes). Interested in a fresco-like Giotto surface, he grounded his canvases with thin layers of gesso. Despite the sharp lines between color regions and the optics of joining fluorescent hues, Aach did not feel these were "hard edge" paintings. Instead he believed the edges were overpowered by his highly saturated volumetric colors.

As the 1970s progressed, Aach took part in a broad range of activities. He participated in a series of trips to East Germany under the aegis of IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) to encourage cultural exchanges with the West, against the backdrop of the ongoing politics of "detente." This gave him the opportunity to study at the Goethe archives in Weimar. He took up an interest in Gothic rose windows. In New York, dissatisfied with the dull and fading blue color used to paint bridges throughout the city, he agitated authorities to use a more uplifting palette. The Madison Avenue bridge on 138th street was ultimately painted lavender on his recommendation, inviting it to be seen as a light and lacy construction rather than as a massive steel bulk, emphasized by the drab blue. In 1979 Aach was diagnosed with cancer. Though weakened by disease, he maintained his busy teaching and travel activities, and when painting became too difficult he still continued to draw (go here for drawings). He died in 1985.

In a catalog to a memorial exhibition at Queens College in 1986, his colleague Louis Finkelstein summarized the achievement of the early "color expressionism" which represented Aach's maturation as an artist:

It is too soon after the artist's death and too abrupt an occasion to trace and to evaluate the many threads of import and development in these works, which represent a limited, but extremely vital, place in Aach's entire oeuvre. His relation to a number of predecessors and contemporaries is manifest. One thinks first of his teacher John Ferren, but also of Pollock, of Pousette-Dart, of Gorky, Rothko, Tamayo, Matisse, Redon, of Manfred Schwartz, and also of Irish manuscripts, Persian textiles, Chinese and pre-Columbian art in many of their forms, so that as a late modern, he is densely located in a cultural tradition. Yet these relations are not simple borrowings. There is not only indebtedness but also repayment and enlargement of that tradition. There is commentary and extension of the world's themes, which remain to be explored and recognized.



Early Color Expressionism

Bonnard Country, 1962, 72"x72"

"I've been using a color stroke that tries for discernment at three feet as well as walk-on distance. For a clarity and distinction without blending in the eye. No large masses tilting with each other. My masses are density without heavy texture. That would get in the way of what I want to do..."

From a journal... Click here for more.

Installation at Ingber Gallery 1988. Paintings from left to right:

  • Tung Dynast, 1960, 90"x68"
  • Phoenix, 1959, 74"x68"
  • Ode to G.M., 1959, 90"x68"
  • Way of Life (9 paintings), 1961/1962, each 33"x33"

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Development of Color Expressionism

Three Muses, 1967, 62"x44"

To achieve more color activation, Aach began working with larger regions of color and using fluorescent pigments. To read a comment on Three Muses by Lowery Sims go here.


Precession of the Equinoxes

Installation at Martha Jackson Gallery, 1974.

"I've moved into the realm of what I call 'impersonal' color. 'Objective' is probably more fitting than 'impersonal'. ... I'm continuing to work in projections and expansions. It seems I can no longer do this by intuition, by rational thought or by analysis. Have to see it all. Trial and error is no longer good enough. Apparently there are no shortcuts. To see this, they must be realized, executed. ..."

From a journal. Click here for more.

For an excerpt of a review of this exhibition by Noel Frackman, click here.


For more information, contact me

Copyright (c) 2003-2012 by John Aach and Doris Aach

Last modified November 13, 2012