Nourished by the Past, Questioning the Present, Stepping into the Future

Ellsworth Kelly has died, aged 92. I won’t write an obituary or summary of his work. You can read The Guardian’s obit, from which I pulled the quote that (slightly altered) serves as the title for this post. My Twitter feed last night was a dazzling gallery of Kelly’s work.

For years I neglected Kelly’s art, and now I am coming to understand how it has influenced my own, as well as the art of a great many others. His work is a careful, joyous unity of color and shape, deceptively simple, informed both by reality and abstraction.

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Ellsworth Kelly, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris 1949, Oil on wood and canvas, two joined panels, 128,3 x 49,5 cm, Collection of the artist, © Ellsworth Kelly.

Consider Window, from 1949. He was at a museum looking at the art and realized he liked the windows better than the works on the walls. A few steps translated the window into an artwork, Mondrian-like in its linearity, but a relief, therefore sculptural, an abstract design yet recognizably a window.

Kelly lived in Paris during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, and even after moving to New York he did not join the AbEx social scene, but lived near artists such as Robert Indiana and Robert Rauschenberg, Barnett Newman, and Agnes Martin – an intriguing mix of abstraction and Pop Art. His was a distinctly personal journey, and his art didn’t feat into any neat category.

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Ellsworth Kelly, Corn (11), 1959, Transparent watercolor on wove paper, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1975.57

Kelly never wholly committed himself to either realism or abstraction. He drew throughout his life, often simple, elegant depictions of flowers and plants. Yet at the same time his brightly colored works are right at home with hard-edge abstract painting. He recognized that a simple shape, whether it be chimneys in the wall of a building, a curve, can provide inspiration. And it did not end with what he made; he included the wall on which his reliefs hang as part of the work. As I wrote above, such simplicity is deceptive; anyone can do it badly, but it takes skill and thought to do it well.

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Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum II, 1966-67, oil on canvas, 203.2 x 693.4 cm, St. Louis Art Museum, Funds given by the Shoenberg Foundation, Inc.: 4:1967a-m

“My paintings don’t represent objects,” he told The New York Times in a 1996 interview. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.” (quoted in the Times’s obituary).

For myself, I can only say that Kelly’s abstractions – simple shapes paired against each other, often in multi-panel reliefs – have become more and more important. There is something central to my development as an artist that I see in Kelly, but do not quite understand how it happened for me. If you take the simple line/color separation in art – painters work either in line or color, and supposedly can be divided into those two schools – then I grew up strongly interested in line artists. When I finally found my way as a painter, after decades of indecision and search, I found myself to be firmly in the color group. Why that is, and how it happened, are two things unknown to me. I can’t help but feel that Ellsworth Kelly traveled a similar route, but in a much more direct and easy fashion. I envy him that, as I envy his long and productive life. You have to stop and look at his pieces; they do not reward the momentary glance, but the time spent is worth it.

 

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