PRINT Summer 1967

Ellsworth Kelly as Sculptor

ALTHOUGH HE IS CELEBRATED primarily as the painter of elegant hard-edge abstractions, Ellsworth Kelly deserves equal renown as the creator of some of the best sculpture done in the sixties. Covering the full range from reliefs to free-standing floor pieces, Kelly’s sculptures are intimately tied to his paintings in their forms, colors, and precise, sharp contours. It is, in fact, as a resolution of certain problems raised by the paintings themselves that the sculptures may be seen.

In his most recent paintings, a series of monochrome panels shown last March at the Sidney Janis Gallery, Kelly has sought a way out of the figure-ground relationships that characterized the compositions of his earlier works. Because the panels are pure color fields, uninflected by any image, no such relationship is set up in them. In a similar fashion, the free-standing sculpture also resolves this dilemma: because they are cut loose from any background, they do not raise the issue of positive versus negative space, a relationship created in Kelly’s earlier paintings by the manner in which a shape is silhouetted against a background of a contrasting color. In the sense that both the monochromatic rectangular panels and the free-standing sculptures are literal shapes in themselves and not depicted shapes, one can see them as alternative and equally viable solutions to the problem of eliminating figure-ground relationships. That such foreground-background relationships are felt to be exhausted by the most advanced painters seems clear. Kelly’s awareness of this exhaustion of potentiality and his discovery of two avenues out of this cul-de-sac, the monochromatic panels and the free-standing sculptures, place him among the group of radical artists, including Noland, Olitski, Stella and Ron Davis, who are grappling with the problem of literal versus depicted shape. Like their most recent work, which Michael Fried has described in a series of remarkable articles in these pages during the past year, Kelly’s new work has to do with the ability of shapes to “stamp themselves out,” as Fried has put it. By loosing the shapes from their grounds, and allow ing each to take on a literal character—the backgrounds in the monochrome panels and the shapes in the sculpture—Kelly does exactly this, he literally stamps out shape.1 And he does this without in any way compromising his style or intention. Because of the high intensity of the hues and color contrasts of joined panels, edges in the new monochromatic paintings have the same sharp bite and clean delineation as the drawn edges in the earlier paintings. And in my opinion the rectangles carry as well and are as convincing as shapes, at least in Kelly’s work, as the more complex, irregular depicted forms in the earlier paintings.2

This development toward the elimination of depicted shape in favor of literal shape can be seen as gradually and logically evolving out of Kelly’s own work. In making his paintings extremely flat to begin with, Kelly was already working toward the elimination of a background plane against which a foreground shape was flattened or impressed. So compressed did this shallowness ultimately become, that all the space, even that around the depicted shapes, began to assume the prominence of “positive” space. But not until depicted shapes were renounced entirely was Kelly free to deal exclusively with positive space. (In discussing Larry Poons, whose space also gives the appearance of being entirely “positive,” Sidney Tillim coined the term “bulk space,” which seems adequate to describe the extremely shallow, hard ground of Kelly’s paintings as well.) From what followed, one might assume that it appeared as if the space in the paintings had become too shallow to accommodate the shapes projected on it.3 At this point, these shapes became free-standing in works such as Gate, which bears a strong resemblance to the X-shape that dominates the painting Sumac. Conceived as pictorial shapes, these large, bold, uncluttered images were admirably suited to sculpture as well. Then, once the shapes had gained an independent identity as sculpture, the backgrounds were free to assume an independent identity as paintings.4 What one suspects and hopes is that the elimination of shapes from the paintings will divert Kelly’s exceptional talent as a creator of original shapes into greater activity in the area of sculpture.

Kelly’s interest in sculpture dates back initially to a commission he executed in 1956 for the Transportation Building in Philadelphia. This is an ingenious construction of painted aluminum sheets laced between two parallel rows of rods. The sheets, which are cut out in irregular patterns, are bent forward and backward and connected to the rods back to front as well as front to back. One-third of the work is painted red, yellow, blue and black, and the rest is unpainted, allowed to remain the natural grey of the aluminum. Seen from different angles, the cut out sheets become a series of groupings or combinations of forms which change as the viewer moves from side to side and isolates different configurations as they come into his field of vision. This, Kelly’s first sculpture, is the only one that does not rest on the floor. But like the free-standing reliefs that followed, the bent planes of this work are meant to be seen frontally; from this vantage point, the empty intervals create a series of negative shapes that are played off against adjacent positive shapes. In subsequent sculptures, however, Kelly abandons negative shapes and presents only a single, large positive shape.

Like the Transportation Building construction, Kelly’s future sculptures were made out of painted sheet aluminum cut to his specifications in a metal fabricating plant. (These pieces are cut, curved, and filed down by an engineer in order to produce exactly the fine edge Kelly desires.) Usually, the sculptures are adapted from small models Kelly is continually making (as he constantly draws as well) in order to provide himself with a steady supply of fresh motifs. Often, Kelly may become so involved with a particular shape he has distilled that he will re-use it in several different contexts. Thus, for example, the Miróesque flattened circle that appears as the top of an early construction with a found-object base becomes the whole of the relief Blue Disk, reappearing again, with its center cut out, in another relief, White Ring. Both these reliefs seem precariously balanced, almost hovering on the ground, as a coin might rest precipitously on its edge. And indeed this sense of the precarious is part of the liveliness of the work.

Because of their absolute flatness, the frontal, single-view reliefs such as Blue Disk and White Ring seem closer to two dimensions than three even though they exist in free space. The single continuous plane they present does not bend or curve, but remains an uninterrupted surface, perpendicular to the floor. Since the surfaces are painted a matte color, light does not reflect from them; similarly, because a plane is flat and unbroken, shadow cannot accumulate in any indentations. Compensating for the lack of light and shadow contrast is the very strong and specific sensation of color, which is as brilliant and forceful in its impact in the sculpture as it is in the paintings. Although he has used green and orange in addition to the primary colors in his paintings, Kelly has so far restricted himself to intensely saturated primaries plus black and white in the sculpture.

Like David Smith’s “Zig” series and certain of Smith’s earlier works, Kelly’s flat reliefs depend on a distinguished silhouette as their means of expression. Like Kelly’s work, the “Zig” pieces, too, were highly colored; but in Kelly’s work the color becomes a specific optical sensation as it does not in the Smith. The reason Kelly’s sculpture provides such a vivid sensation is because his flat broad planes present a continuous surface sufficiently large to deliver a genuine color experience. Smith’s reliefs, on the other hand, although frontal, are highly irregular in their convexity and concavity and present a discontinuous surface. They are, in addition, made up of a number of parts, whereas Kelly’s sculpture consists of one, or at the most two, planes. In a certain sense, then, Kelly is able to use sculpture as a vehicle for a color experience precisely because he has generated his sculpture directly from his painting.5

The balance in the frontal reliefs is achieved by bolting the piece to a rigid spine set at right angles to it which supports it. The more complex pieces, which consist of two inclined planes, like Gate, Pony, and Red-Blue Rocker, are made to stand simply because their planes mutually support each other, as one would fold a piece of cardboard in order to make it stand, or lean playing cards against one another to build a house of cards. It is typical of Kelly’s approach that he chooses the simplest, most direct form of presentation, and then refines and develops it to a high degree of sophistication. In certain respects, one sees analogies in this folding and bending of planes with the Japanese art of paper-folding, although one doesn’t want to press the analogy too far because, in contrast with the Japanese tradition, which it may resemble in its understatement and economy, Kelly’s art is a distinctly Western and a distinctly monumental expression. Simplicity and lack of pretension, however, are entirely in keeping with Kelly’s sensibility, to which any kind of falseness or gimmickry is anathema.

Living in Paris after the War, Kelly became familiar with Arp’s raised wooden reliefs; these surely exerted an influence on him, as did Miró’s irregular biomorphic shapes. This interest in the freely created shapes of Miró and Arp, plus his distinctively American sensibility, insured Kelly’s autonomy from any overly restrictive interpretation of geometry. In point of fact, the origin of Kelly’s forms is not in any a priori set of geometric motifs, but in things seen. Like earlier American artists such as O’Keeffe, Sheeler and Demuth, Kelly is often inspired by fragments of architectural or natural forms, or by the patterns of their shadows. (For example the Transportation Building construction was derived to an extent from an earlier painting in folded panels that was in turn inspired by the shadow created by a balustrade on a stairway.) Other aspects of Kelly’s work, too, such as his forceful silhouettes, quiet mood, and respect for craftsmanship, link him to the Precisionists. I point this out because in other ways, Kelly seems very much tied to the French tradition. Like Calder, whose stabiles have certain—coincidental, I think—analogies with the flat planes of Kelly’s sculpture, Kelly has a debt to Matisse’s bold late cut-outs as well, which is as clear in his sculpture as it is in his painting.

According to Kelly, his original impulse to make reliefs was merely to get away from the flat surface. Thus, in a relief like Black Blue, the flaring black form begins anchored at the top to its blue background, but gradually bends away until it is entirely free of the support at the bottom, where it also breaks the rectangular frame and asserts its existence in the actual space of the room. In Gate, sheer frontality is broken by the crease in the center of the piece which sends the sides of the x-shape back at a gradual angle from each other. In Pony and Red-Blue Rocker, which can be set into a slow motion with a gentle push, the viewer is forced to walk around the piece in order to assimilate all the visible angles.

Perhaps Kelly’s most ambitious sculpture, the large floor piece, Whites, is made up of two lily pad-like “leaves” that fit together at their indentation. Painted a uniform white, the two flat cutout planes that make up the work are gently inclined on small drums which rest on the floor. Like Pony and Red-Blue Rocker, Whites is a fully three-dimensional work, which demands an in-the-round viewing. Because it is extremely low, no higher than the spectator’s knees, yet quite broad, the sense one gets walking around it is something like that of an aerial view. Recently, a number of young sculptors such as Richard van Buren and Richard Tuttle have made works that the viewer is forced to look down on, but these pieces lie on the floor inertly, whereas Whites actively engages the space around it, creating multiple views that depend on the viewer’s angle of vision.

Because the shapes he begins with are not related to the human figure, Kelly’s shapes never have the overtones of the anthropomorphic that compromise, to the degree that they are unacknowledged as figural, much sculpture that purports to be abstract. Like the Precisionists, Kelly recognizes forms in everyday experience which have esthetic potential; seizing them out of context, he purifies and refines them, recreating them in the context of abstract art in order to possess them. For example, in the late forties, he made a series of constructions in which he interpreted actual forms, like that of a window, in terms of abstract relationships. Essentially, this is still the procedure by which he arrives at the bold, unequivocal, large forms that characterize his present work.

Although Kelly’s oeuvre as a sculptor is not large, it is of the highest quality and originality. What sets it apart as unique is not its immaculate perfection, which bears the burden of expression in the work of a gifted but minor sculptor like de Rivera, but its monumentality, its resolute conviction, and its formal coherence. Although Kelly’s artlessness may pass as reductive simplification, there is ultimately nothing reductionist about the fullness of experience the works offer. Their simplicity and equanimity is that of the classical, not the reductionist, spirit.

Barbara Rose



1. I see no way other than literally that a shape can “stamp itself out.” This raises the question of whether the rectangle, the literal shape of the painting support, is sufficiently strong as a shape to stamp itself out convincingly. (Obviously what is inside the rectangle must act to reinforce the perimeter, or that perimeter is going to count as a meaningful independent shape.) It is evident that the makers of eccentrically shaped canvases do not find the rectangle per se strong enough to carry as a shape; Kelly, on the other hand, does. Fried discusses the shaped canvas as a special problem of Stella’s work and finds that he has used it successfully (in “Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” Artforum, Nov., 1966). The problem of the shaped canvas remains crucial today, particularly among younger painters. But outside of Noland and Stella, who have used it to advantage in very different ways, I can’t see that as a device, which is how it has been interpreted by lesser painters, it has been very fruitful. In other instances the shapes always appear as an effect, rather than as a necessity as it is in the case of Noland and Stella who were clearly forced (perhaps even reluctantly), by the pressures generated within their own work, to adopt the eccentric format. It is also interesting, in this light, that both continue to use the rectangular format as well.

2. One can also see Kelly’s reasons for moving into three dimensions as related to, although not identical with, the reasons the object sculptors such as Judd and Bell have opted for three dimensions. Like Kelly, the object sculptors have been successful, as by and large the makers of shaped canvases have not been, in creating shapes that stamp themselves out as coherent, holistic images. But the literalness that Kelly espouses is not the outcome of a literal attitude with regard to pictorial illusionism, which is the basis of the literalness of the object sculptors. It is rather that literalness which is already implicit in Mondrian and in the various constructivist styles; the literalness that forces one to acknowledge the work of art as a real entity in the world by making it as concrete as possible. Kelly’s interest from the outset in dividing the canvas into zones, areas or fields of color seems the point of departure for the monochromatic rectangles, which act as pure, uninflected fields of color.

3. Kelly’s earliest three-dimensional works, a series of projects for reliefs executed in 1952, presented literal planes in front of the picture plane. Eventually the cut out shape was pushed ahead of its background and anchored six to eight inches in front of it. Although the relationship remained one of parallel planes receding behind one another, this recession now took place in front of, rather than behind, the picture plane. By forcing the plane of the shape out in front of the picture plane, Kelly’s reliefs carry the concept of “bulk,” or all positive space, to its logical conclusion. Once the background plane is brought so close to the surface that it actually becomes the picture plane, there is no place for the shape depicted on it to go but out in front of it, into actual space, where it becomes an actual cut-out, existing in the real space of the viewer. Once this has happened, the shape may become fully three-dimensional, free to rest on the floor instead of being attached to any pictorial background plane.

4. This is of course a gross simplification. The complex procedure through which an artist synthesizes a concept of space evolves over a period of years and cannot be so simply summed up, as if it represents an overnight decision. The monochrome pane is, for example, were first executed, in a much smaller version, in the early fifties.

5. Like literal shape, color has more impact and meaning in the new object sculpture that, like Kelly’s sculpture, has been generated in response to painting. In assembled sculpture, color too often appears, not as an intrinsic quality, but as a compositional effect, a method for unifying the coordinated parts into a whole. The worst offender in this department is Nevelson, whose use of color is a superficial device to mask a lack of formal coherence.