When art world luminary Ellsworth Kelly died in December at the age of 92, his obituaries described him as an artist who rejected the very idea of art as self-expression. Now a new study by scholar Yve-Alain Bois takes this idea one step further and argues that Kelly’s avowed muse was “impersonality” and the “eradication of subjectivity.”
Kelly’s death coincided with the Cahiers d’Art publication of Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Reliefs, and Sculpture, Volume One, 1940–1953. In November, the catalogue was awarded the inaugural Pierre Daix Prize at the Musée Picasso in Paris. Given Kelly’s major indebtedness to 20th-century French art, the award ceremony’s location was fitting.
The compendium’s hefty price tag — €337.5 — places it out of reach for most practitioners and scholars who could gain from its complex insights about art-making and the evolution of a unique vision. Through Yve-Alain Bois’s engaging and painstakingly researched essays, the catalogue details each juncture in the artist’s early career. Before the reader’s eyes, Kelly is transforming himself from a middle-of-the road figurative painter into an innovative, lyrical abstractionist gradually branching out into mixed media works and relief sculptures.
Born in 1923 in the Newburgh suburb of New York and raised in New Jersey, Kelly served in the US Army’s 603rd Engineers battalion out of Maryland, making camouflage and decoys before he participated in battlefield operations in 1944 in Normandy, Northern France and Belgium. He studied art at Pratt Institute from 1941 to 1943 and at the Boston Museum School from 1946 to 1948.
In addition to its copious biographical details — Bois consulted regularly with Kelly — the catalogue offers reproductions of rarely seen student works — extensive drawings and studies along with somber portraits and moody landscapes enlivened with European avant-garde conceits; Paul Gauguin and Max Beckmann are named as foundational influences.
Bois’s analyses of Kelly’s art school realism emphasizes how these naively naturalistic works portend the stripped-down semi-abstractions that were soon to come. After taking in the book’s entirety, the lucky reader will be tempted, as I was, to go back to these student works and seek covert abstract effects underpinning the representational elements.
For instance, in the bucolic landscape “Grain Elevator, Oradell” (1940), a telephone pole, leaning on a diagonal, dominates the center of the picture, conspicuously dividing the grain elevator’s deep red façade, which is symmetrically placed at an angle to the viewer. Unadorned grayish windows on opposing sides of the elevator shaft come off as distinctly gnomic formations, while the naively painted green landscape and cloud-filled blue sky seem partitioned into neat grids.
Such student work won Kelly the enduring support of his teacher Karl Zerbe, a European-trained painter who had fled Nazi Germany. But not everyone was a fan of the young artist. According to Bois, when Kelly was on a student trip to France, he tried to enroll in Fernand Léger’s academy, an attempt that was aborted when his “Self Portrait with Bugle” (1947) was harshly critiqued. Léger, one of Kelly’s beloved heroes, recommended that the young man “go back to Boston and blow his bugle.”
With Zerbe’s encouragement, the artist indeed went back to Boston and carried on, eventually earning admission to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris on the merits of a series of thickset, Picasso-esque nudes (1947–48).
Kelly’s final painting before leaving for France was the Van Gogh-homage, “Shoes” (1948), in which drab footwear, strewn hither and thither, coalesce into accidental harmony. One of his last purely realist works, “Shoes” prefigures the way Kelly would go on to pair chance operations with an assured selectivity. That dualistic approach would become Kelly’s blueprint.
Once settled in France, Kelly visited the studios of Hans Arp, Constantin Brancusi and Georges Vantongerloo. One of his most accomplished monochromatic paintings, “Tableau Vert” (1952) was made after a trip to Giverny, where Claude Monet’s stepson, Jean-Pierre Hoschedé, showed the young American fifteen enormous paintings that remained in the late Impressionist’s dilapidated studio.
While such experiences with 19th- and 20th-century art can be seen as highlights of the five years he spent in France, Kelly sought inspiration far beyond French painting. Romanesque architecture was an immediate passion. At the Bibliothèque Byzantine he studied books on Turkish art and architecture. Of special interest were the Hagia Sophia mosaics, which inspired such portraits as “Figure with Yellow and Blue” (1949) and a breakthrough series of feminized self-portraits using flattening effects, exaggerated volume and strong coloration. His academic realism was giving way to a poeticized vision. Bois refers to the work inspired by the mosaics as “oblique” lineation that traces “inner contours,” no longer conforming to naturalism.
Kelly was similarly drawn to Chinese calligraphic sources. In the Musée Cernuschi, he examined Zhuan-Shu seals. In response, he copied their calligraphic patterns as objectively as possible. Explaining his method to Bois, Kelly was adamant that by copying a found object’s structural patterns, he would introduce no original content into his artwork. Bois describes Kelly’s “non-compositional” practice as one in which graphic transcription retains “a close link between the pattern [of the found object] that is recorded and the record itself [Kelly’s drawing of the object’s pattern].”
For instance, working with non-Western models such as the Zhuan-Shu seals, Kelly transcribed their calligraphic patterns in careful drawings and then used that “transcription” as the basis for an original painting — one that, like certain Chinese characters, would resemble a figure or another anthropomorphic entity that, in Kelly’s words, is presented in the artwork as “caught in the process of becoming abstract” (85).
Through this procedure, which Bois frequently if sometimes confusingly calls Kelly’s “transfer” technique, the artist created such imaginative works as the haunting oil painting “Faceless Head” (1949), in which the sitter’s lower body is reduced to a slender half-torso dressed in a coal-colored shirt. This disproportionately slender body gives way to an overlong neck and a large oval head whose eyes are barely rendered. “Faceless Head” locates reality in the subject’s substructure, deriving its tension from the juxtaposition of the blood-red background against the thick outlines and fleshly glow of the elongated head. By doing so, the painting focuses exclusively on the symmetry of its subject’s physiognomy. The human body emerges like an alphabetic arrangement and a semi-abstract totem.
Kelly’s newfound appetite for this kind of semi-abstract portraiture leads him to such open-ended, biomorphic pictures as “Study for Plant” (1949). The flower is positioned like a human head surrounded by elongated leaves resembling arms, while the bottommost leaves evoke human feet.
With each passing year, the young artist further blurs the boundary between abstraction and figuration.
Kelly had been introduced to the surrealist technique of automatic drawing and the game of cadavre exquis (“exquisite corpse”) by his close friend Ralph Coburn. “Ubu” (1949), a sleek and mesmerizing oil painting, is based on random scribbles Kelly had made on his own thigh. The “non-compositional” generation of “Ubu” leads Bois to provide another explanation of Kelly’s so-called “transfer” process.
In the lead-up to “Ubu,” he writes, Kelly had “absent-mindedly” doodled lines on his thigh. He subsequently copied those scrawls exactly as they appeared on his skin, and then redrew a large-scale version of them on bicolored cardboard, which resulted in the painting depicting the flat face and compact body of a barn owl.
After this experiment with the doodles on his thigh, Kelly developed a fascination with authentically “transcribing” the designs and structural essences of other random, found objects: the fronds and lamina of seaweed; the shell of a bombed-out bunker; a sundial on a rooftop; a monstrance from an illuminated manuscript; the fretwork of window frames.
Dividing his time between Paris and a studio in Belle-Île, where reproductions of works by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso were tacked on his wall, Kelly produced a stunning variety of works, from extensive studies and drawings to mixed media paintings and small-scale relief sculptures. Kelly had found his calling and never looked back.
The new art flowed but everyday struggles persisted. Although he enjoyed a one-man show at Galerie Arnaud in 1951, his work wasn’t selling. Nearly broke, Kelly secured a job under the Marshall Plan, working as a janitor in a Paris office. By the time he resettled in America in the early summer of 1954, he had accrued a large body of original work and had progressed into the striking color panel paintings that soon made him famous. He had developed his art happily oblivious to the new movement known as Abstract Expressionism rocking the New York scene.
His aesthetic philosophy resonates throughout this important catalogue. Kelly learns how to view natural formations and urban structures as readymade objects to be seen, not as subjects to be described. In this renewed relation to objects, seeing is contiguous with making. “Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made,” Kelly explained, “and it had to be made exactly as it was.” In another essay in the catalogue, Kelly’s longtime partner Jack Shear, summing up Kelly’s belief in seeing and making as simultaneous, writes, “If you turn off the mind and look only with the eyes ultimately everything becomes abstract.”
And seeing, like art-making, was not considered by Kelly to be a totalizing act. Late in life he spoke of art in almost ontological terms: “What I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.”
Standing before one of Kelly’s abstract, multipanel paintings or his stark monumental public sculptures, the viewer might well ask where such resolutely formal work comes from. The literal answer lies somewhere in the particulars of the world Kelly inhabited. But those sources are necessarily displaced, gone. And now, the maker is gone, too. That leaves the artwork as Kelly’s only world, really. Seeing it, we might grasp that what Kelly made was, strictly, what he saw.