Ellsworth Kelly

Essays by Clare Bell, Roberta Bernstein, Carter Ratcliff, Mark Rosenthal, and Diane Waldman. Exhibition history and bibliography by Josette Lamoureaux.

The timing this fall for the Ellsworth Kelly retrospective, organized by curator Diane Waldman at the Guggenheim Museum, couldn’t have been better in terms of concurrent exhibitions around town. To begin with, there were the Antonin Artaud and Jasper Johns shows at the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps unexpectedly, Waldman’s catalogue essay indicates that Kelly, who spent his formative years as an American in Paris on the G.I. Bill, had there discovered and admired Artaud’s cursive art. Part writing, part drawing, part magical spell, these obscure and affecting images may appear polar opposites to Kelly’s optimistic abstractions. However, affinities do arise in the privileges each artist accorded the work on paper and processes of automatism associated with Surrealism. The Jasper Johns retrospective afforded an assessment of near-contemporaries–Johns was born in 1930, Kelly in 1923. At various points in their careers, both artists have been associated with the popular movements of the day–from Pop to Minimalism–at the same time that each has eluded labels to pursue his own highly classical, rigorously refined and aesthetic vision of contemporary art. More insights into Kelly’s art could be garnered from the brilliant exhibition of Max Beckmann’s late paintings at the Guggenheim SoHo. In 1948 Beckmann lectured at the Boston Museum School, where Kelly studied and where he may have first been formally introduced to the expressive quality of line that emerges as an organizing principle in his art.

Before addressing the contents of the Kelly catalogue, words of appreciation are in order for the production of this exceptionally handsome book. As an object, it’s substantial and square, rather like one of its subject’s famous compositions. Kelly’s work is served well by traditional, tripartite organization: essays/pictures/cataloguing details (as opposed to the more integrated approach that characterizes many recent catalogues). But don’t be fooled by this stolid formula. The texts move at a clip, a pace matched by well-edited picture sequences that flow like short films from page to page, in generous margins. These effectively arouse one’s curiosity to ask what, exactly, Antonio Gaudí’s smashed tile work has to do with Kelly’s placid forms, or whether Kelly really designed the fabric for the fabulous Pierre Balmain creation. (Answers to be found in the essays: Gaudí’s use of fragments, which Kelly sees as a significant precursor to Cubism, shaped his own monumental Barcelona public sculpture of 1987, and yes, in 1951 Kelly worked for a Swiss textile company.) There are also, interspersed throughout, some very telling portraits of the artist’s various domains throughout the years, where his collections of indigenous artifacts, from North American birdstones to New England millstones, manifest what he has dubbed an “aura of shape,” a notion that proves key to appreciating Kelly’s own aims.

In short, these pictorial asides do much to tell the story of Kelly’s art, making recognizable the imagery and issues that significantly inform his approach to abstraction. Five essayists speculate in depth, starting with Waldman, who surveys the artist’s entire career. She places special emphasis on Kelly’s formative years in Paris (1948-54) and on his fellowship (1956-70) with other Coenties Slip artists, including Johns, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jack Youngerman. Both factors proved to distance Kelly from the dominant American art of the period, Abstract Expressionism. In France, Kelly had discovered the work of Jean and Sophie Tauber Arp and adopted some of their chance techniques to compose a breakthrough series of collages. Having torn his own drawings of brushstrokes into shreds, Kelly tossed the papers into the air and let them fall into place. Translated into paint, the results were some of the artist’s first important works: CitJ and Mechers (both 1951), whose bold certainty of color and hard edges do not reveal their uncertain inception in the play of chance.

Waldman considers another somewhat surprising inspiration for Kelly’s art: photography. In the exhibition, Kelly’s black and white photographs stood in relation to the main body of his art like hard evidence. They make the sources of his abstraction explicit: a certain curve refers to the snow-covered crest of a hillside; an acute angle is the pitch of a barn roof. The tattered patchwork of a beach cabana turns into shards of color on a blank ground. (Also surprising was a series of collages that prove how punchy a little torn paper on a postcard can be.) Kelly’s faculty for simplification and containment of images is, similarly, the essence of his contour drawings. As Waldman points out, this comparatively well-known aspect of his oeuvre–his outlines of flowers and foliage are classics in the realm of contemporary works on paper–has been a staple of Kelly’s art since at least 1949, when he limned the form of an old canvas tennis shoe.

Having covered most of Kelly’s career, Waldman’s essay is followed by Roberta Bernstein on Kelly’s multipanel paintings as they relate to this format in general during the second half of the century. Beckmann is cited–monumental triptychs were the mainstay of his period of exile–and so is Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, as fueling Kelly’s own long-standing interest. (Coincidentally, Grünewald’s masterpiece also serves Johns’ art.) However, for the most part, Bernstein sticks closely to the dialogue between Kelly’s sketchbooks and his paintings. Rich and detailed though the paintings may be, formalist art discussed in such overly formalist terms makes for somewhat tedious reading. This reader preferred the fact-riddled, super-minutiae of the author’s 74 footnotes.

Carter Ratcliff and Mark Rosenthal contribute shorter thematic essays, Ratcliff on curves and Rosenthal on the notion of presence in Kelly’s art. Looking for the “freedom and separateness” that Kelly claims for his art, Ratcliff finds it in spades in the artist’s big, monochromatic curves. Indeed, these works appear to bust out of the pictorial frame of the rectangle and to claim the wall on their own terms. One might read Rosenthal’s essay as a further step along this trajectory, investigated in terms both metaphysical and concrete. Given the idea of separateness, on what ground do we stand as viewers of these presences? Offering Matisse’s Dance I (1909) as a precedent to Kelly’s work, one that broke into the realms of movement, color, and craft, Rosenthal makes a good suggestion: “In contemplating a painting by Kelly, what is required of the viewer is an aesthetic gaze, that is, eyes willing to look upon the artwork and be moved by its mere description.”

The final essay, by Clare Bell, examines a book project entitled Line, Form and Color that Kelly conceived of in 1951. Based on a series of 40 ink and collage drawings on paper, the textless book was “to be an alphabet of plastic pictorial elements…[It] shall aim at establishing a new scale of painting, a closer contact between the artist and the wall, and a new spirit of painting to accompany modern architecture.” So Kelly wrote in his grant application to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York. (He hoped that the book project would help distinguish him from the rest of the painter candidates. It may well have: the foundation turned him down.) The publication was never realized, but as Bell points out, the series and its conceptualization proved critical to Kelly’s successive achievements. Through her essay covers ground strangely similar to Waldman’s, Bell’s discussion of Kelly’s art in terms of International Style architecture and her poetical insights into his expatriate experience are valuable. Outside the catalogue, Kelly’s architectural aspirations were indeed well realized in the installation at the Guggenheim, where his work played hard against Frank Lloyd Wright’s idiosyncratic architecture in a brilliant match.

All of the authors go to unusual lengths to establish Kelly’s contribution to postwar art. We are told in such authoritative terms and in so many ways why he’s not everything from a Cubist to a Minimalist, and why his art is quintessentially American despite the artist’s expressed affinities for Europe. The protest begins to sound suspiciously loud. (Throughout, no one pays any attention to the relationship that exists between Kelly’s abstraction and the work of another francophile compatriot, Alexander Calder.) Perhaps the real point is that labels and movements are by their very nature limiting terms that shouldn’t b expected to define a productive artist’s oeuvre over the course of an entire lifetime. But why split more hairs? Whatever he is, or isn’t Kelly’s art has recently proved the stuff of an exceptional exhibition and catalogue.