PRINT Summer 1969

The Earlier Work of Ellsworth Kelly

THE MORPHOLOGY OF ELLSWORTH KELLY’S ART remains virtually unknown. Almost exclusively such critical discussion of his art that has taken place has been based on the body of single image, neo-biomorphic and heraldic paintings exhibited subsequent to his return to New York in 1954 at Betty Parsons Gallery (and also in London and Paris). His early work has only recently been randomly exposed; consequently, critical discussion of Kelly’s art invariably lacks a coherent structure, or presents a wholly incomplete picture of his accomplishment. For the most part, it has been taken for granted that the spectrum, modular, serial and illusionistic paintings exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery since 1965 are wholly recent developments, engendered—at least in some measure—by the changing climate of the art of the sixties. In actual fact, however, a relatively unknown body of paintings, reliefs, collages arid drawings created in Paris between 1951 and 1954, taken as a whole, have provided him with a full-fledged repertoire of forms that are conspicuously anterior, by well over a decade, if not longer, to the unfolding art of the sixties. This highly developed repertoire has been the sustenance of Kelly’s self sufficiency—a buried vein of gold, so to speak, which he has mined from time to time according to his needs.

With knowledge of the broad spectrum of Kelly’s later work, re-examination of his early work clearly reveals an irreversible condition of momentum to his art. It is true that an artist’s early work is often full of clues to his later development; yet this is a matter of hindsight, and therefore not at all obvious in the beginning. But what is unusual or even fascinating about Kelly’s art is the degree to which nearly all his later work is fully compacted in the early work, and palpably so.

Kelly’s early art overtly reveals his typical predisposition for a non-linear development. Thus, he is able to deal with ideas—if not simultaneously, then in such a short period of time that sequence and order is difficult to establish because of overlap. His ideas are stored for investigation, and once a drawing or collage has been made it may be used to create a painting immediately or held over for some later occasion. Kelly is quite likely to delve into any part of his repertoire and at any time add variations that may have been conceived months or years previously. Hence the ubiquitousness of his process and the plurality of his vision as temperamental characteristics often combine to confuse strict chronological charting. Moreover, since Kelly rarely abandons an idea—his system is incredibly open—he will permit a nascent or embryonic idea to mature without urgency.

Many of the principles covertly at work in Kelly’s painting, especially toward the end of 1950, assumed a more dominant role when he focused on a type of organization that depends heavily on a modular framework. In La Combe II and Ormesson (both of 1950) and Cite (of 1951), despite an extreme diversity of imagery and colors, all three paintings are linked by a systematic use of conjoined panels. La Combe consists of nine wood panels, Ormesson of three nearly square canvases and Cite of twenty wood panels. The three paintings taken together clearly reveal an aggressive attempt to de-emphasize the limits of the field as a spatial container. In other words, the space is hypothesized as a limitless field of random activity, each painting being a specimen “sample” of such space. And by rearranging and recombining the panels, innumerable specimens can be entrapped and revealed. Despite their randomness and their tacit assumption of an all-over organization, these paintings link spatially and stylistically to optical art, particularly in their emphasis on hardness, crispness and flatness. Color and line become a mosaic of shape contrasted to the white ground, which becomes more optically emphatic. The panels lose their sense of physical identity as units and are subsumed into the whole; the white ground and the painted elements link to establish interacting geometric configurations. In short, the module of the geometry is so emphasized (even the curve in Ormesson is hard and rectilinear) that the modular panels seem to be a functional rather than a purely visual phenomenon. From the point of view of painterly sophistication, especially the degree of painterly finish and control of medium, these are Kelly’s most sophisticated works up to that time in his career. Their premises, however, are perhaps entirely European. These paintings can be considered as corresponding to the same imperatives afterwards implicit in European geometric art centered in Paris around the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel. The interchangeability of the panels, moreover, suggests the possible spatial and organizational assumptions that are fundamental to later Kinetic art.

Kelly apparently sensed the shortcomings of these paintings however, especially in the manner in which the modulated field of connected panels and the superimposed imagery spatially failed to relate to one another. In 1952 he began to concentrate on the modular as a prime carrier of form. This development took place in two parts, often side by side, and in two mediums: collage and oil paint on canvas or wood. Kelly’s use of collage at this time is extensive. Whatever provoked him to utilize this material, his extensive reliance on it during his Paris period was certainly unorthodox, if for no other reason than that its use up to that time in purely non-objective art was very rare. Paper as a material for collage has invariably been used for its associative, referential or poetic overtones. Kelly used it instead as an inert or anonymous material to vigorously test spatial and organizational possibilities. Inherent to collage, of course, is the artist’s freedom to rapidly rearrange loose pieces. Kelly exploits this capacity of the medium in a compulsively rectilinear manner—by first establishing a module and then exploring all possible variations or permutations of form. Very often these collages are quite different from the paintings, both in color and organization. Generally, when complex mixtures of color appear in his collages the color is far less controlled than in the paintings and obviously more subject to the limitations of the available colored paper. The collages are much more varied, experimental and less balanced, displaying an erratic or dramatic tendency. The consequences of this experimental period are twofold: in comparison to his previous work, Kelly’s painting now becomes more systematic, more controlled and more refined and complex in color, especially in the series of horizontal multi-paneled Kite paintings that first appear in 1952, as well as in many paintings thereafter. Then, once the Kite paintings emerge, Kelly’s collage changes and becomes less experimental, serving basically as a means of systematically investigating close variations on single paintings.

It is significant to note that Kelly has never exhibited his collage. He regards collage as an intermediate, secondary process—an aide-mémoire to painting—if for no other reason than the lack of scale inherent to the medium. In contrast to his work in collage, Kelly is able to make the most acute refinements and adjustments of size, color, and proportion in his painting, and at the same time find the physical size most suitable to the image. It is true, of course, that Kelly has made a considerable number of non-objective lithographs, but, again, he uses this medium only to the extent that he is able to satisfy the requirements of size, color and organizational control central to his paintings.

Two collages of 1952, Red and White and White and Black, appear to be predictive works. Red and White is based on a symmetrical module of twenty-five square white panels arranged to form a large square, each side having five subdivisions. Fifteen red pieces of paper, equal to half the module, are positioned on the field; the pieces of paper are out of balance, though the overall image is not defiantly irregular. Three larger elements, each formed by butting two pieces of red paper, are positioned across the white module and act somewhat as hinges, linking six of the white panels. The total effect is ambiguous. In contrast, the White and Black collage is organized quite differently. The ground is black, with ten white squares of identically sized paper symmetrically positioned to create a well-defined black emblem. The regular disposition of the intervals between the parts of the emblem creates an implied or subliminal module, but one that is not physically present as a consequence of subdivisions. In fact, the horizontal spacing of the emblem is smaller than the vertical elements. Furthermore, unlike Red and White, definite form and color reversals take place in White and Black sometimes the black emblem and at other times the module of white squares reads positively.

What Kelly seems to have intuitively predicated in these two works is the capacity of the observer always to form a system for viewing, and that this forming action is subject to an extraordinary degree of control by the artist. In other words, the observer’s perception can be set in motion by adjusting the parameters of the structure. In these two collages, for example, two quite different methods of “forming” are asserted. Red and White has a symmetrically organized ground of twenty-five panels aligned in five rows with five subdivisions. The symmetry of the ground in Red and White is disrupted by the irregularity of the surface module, resulting in an image that is random and non-cohesive as a visual phenomenon; the field itself lacks delineation, particularly against a white ground that tends to subsume it. In contrast, White and Black is handled by ordering clearly definable parts, identical in shape (but slightly different in size), which cohere to form wholes, of both image and field. Thus, as the boundaries of the field are accentuated, the substance of the field seems to become clearer. And because modular form deals with symmetry, it has an inherent capacity to automatically equalize the parts. Another potential at play in White and Black, is the ability of the field to attach itself to the emblem, a phenomenon induced by the backward and forward flux of the white ground. The uniqueness of the space and the observer’s experience of it, it would appear, can be tangibly enhanced when the painting is non-segmental, when it can be perceived as dealing with a whole; it then becomes as nearly as possible a self-contained experience.

Kelly clearly has a compulsion to order, but apparently this compulsion could not be fully directed until the whole issue of randomness was laid to rest. Setting aside for the time being many of the questions posed in White and Black, he concentrated on investigating within the medium of painting the issue of randomness. At the same time he continued to probe other possibilities in collage.

Seine, of 1951, still probes the question of randomness, but color and structure are united by the module. It was arrived at by gridding the field symmetrically into 40 vertical units of three-sixteenths inches by 80 horizontal units of one-half inch. The extreme left and right columns are blank. By working progressively toward the center the gridded field was filled progressively and linearly with from one to 40 black squares, their position being plotted entirely through chance, by literally pulling numbered pieces of paper out of a hat, one at a time. The same procedure was adopted for Colors in Black, which was first made as a collage but not painted until 1953. The grid in Colors in Black is also symmetrical and consists of 40 horizontal and 40 vertical squares, 1600 in all. In the latter painting, however, the symmetry was destroyed by first randomly drawing out of a hat the position of 800 black squares, and thereafter taking approximately 20 colors and randomly plotting their position by the same method in the leftover spaces. The black squares were then filled in. Both Seine and Colors in Black, consequently, deal with atomization of the surface. In Seine, the span of the reversal of black and white is physically attenuated. For instance, at the center and at the lateral edges the reversals are complete and absolute; the black squares on the edges read unambiguously on the white ground and in the center the whites read as unambiguous units on a black ground. Between the center and the lateral edges, however, the squares cluster to form configurations of black or white in various degrees of fluctuating reversals. In Colors in Black the blacks form islands of various configurations which hold the surface. The color, on the other hand, forms a free and ambiguous texture animating the whole field.

In both Seine and Colors in Black the elements of chance and randomness as used would appear to attenuate the field, without defining or circumscribing it. But from Kelly’s point of view the whole process was too tedious and the scale of the parts too small. As one consequence, Kelly began increasing his module. 64 Panels (1951), as the title indicates, replaces the network of vertical and horizontal guidelines with a module of discrete elements homogenized into a whole; yet, unlike the preceding paintings, the discrete elements are more apparent, more “felt,” because of their individual identity. It would appear that a drawn grid executed on a small scale tends to fracture or break up the surface, perhaps in the same manner, for example, that stones or leaves when viewed en masse are normally seen not as discrete entities but as pattern. The nearer a group of objects (boulders or trees) approaches the human scale, on the other hand, the more apparent their individual physical identities become, and the more idiosyncratic the intervals and differences between such clusters of objects appear. In short, large objects are visually less amorphous. They tend to delineate space more acutely, or, at least, the perception of such space by an observer. The position and spatial coordinates of objects gain augmented presence and tension the nearer their size approximates the human frame. Their individual masses, weights, densities, textures, colors, thicknesses, etc., are more easily apprehensible and discernible and therefore more consequential.

Kelly originally planned 64 Panels to be executed in mural size. It never reached such proportions, though its overall size is large—eight feet by eight feet. Each panel, then, is one foot square, whereas in Colors in Black each unit in the grid is approximately one and one-half inches square. 64 Panels was executed quite intuitively and with great rapidity, even though Kelly used mainly secondary colors that give every appearance of being highly considered. In organization, however, the painting echoes very closely two paintings by Mondrian of 1919—Composition: Checkerboard, Bright Colors and Composition: Checkerboard, Dark Colors. The similarity of Kelly’s painting to that of Mondrian’s two paintings is too close to be missed, though in fact Kelly had never seen nor had any knowledge of Mondrian’s two works. There are, however, crucial differences; for instance, Mondrian’s module in both paintings consists of 196 symmetrically arranged squares in linear subdivisions of sixteen, with asymmetrically applied color. The overall size of the paintings are much smaller than Kelly’s. In addition, Mondrian’s forms are gridded over with a network of applied thin black lines, whereas Kelly’s borders in 64 Panels are formed by the edges of the panels meeting. In short, Kelly’s painting, as the title indicates, consists of 64 separate panels united into one form.

Yet, coincidentally, Kelly’s 64 Panels is based on a system of irregular balance very close to Mondrian’s in the two 1919 paintings. This and several of Kelly’s works that follow coincide with Mondrian’s in another respect. Immediately after Mondrian finished the two checkerboards he—as did Kelly—began to enlarge his internal module. On the other hand, Mondrian was never, through his entire spectrum of work, to make a painting as large as Kelly’s eight-foot-square 64 Panels. There is one more point worth raising concerning similarities (and differences) between Mondrian’s and Kelly’s work at this stage in the latter’s evolution. In Kelly’s painting during 1952–1953, he was finally to opt for a highly symmetrical organization, sometimes bilateral (in both color and form) and at other times coaxial (that is, vertically, horizontally and diagonally symmetrical, e.g., a square or a circle). As it happened, Mondrian, just prior to the two checkerboards, painted in 1918 the only nearly axially symmetrical painting in his entire body of work—Lozenge with Grey Lines.

Quite apart from scale and color (Kelly’s use of which was soon to radically differentiate his work from Mondrian’s) this sequence of paintings in 1918–19 shows Mondrian making a decision that Kelly was to reverse in his own work decades later. Though Mondrian considered the use of symmetry, he opted instead for completely asymmetrical methods of organizing his structure and his color. Kelly’s option for symmetry was not immediately apparent; although two further modular paintings finished in 1952, 42 Squares and Yellow on Yellow, are structurally disposed toward this type of organization.

These paintings and Mediterranée were engendered during a winter sojourn in the south of France in 1952. Mediterranée is a nine-paneled painting in which the module is greatly increased in size, each panel measuring over one and a half by two feet. Three of the panels are raised in varying degrees above the field. At this point Kelly began a series of quite radical collages based on the use of bilateral symmetry on a layered horizontal module, induced no doubt by the open, sweeping horizon line of the foreshore; the sea and the sky. In their organization these collages reveal two principal subdivisions: 1) moduled tiers of colored and black and white horizontal bands running laterally from framing edge to framing edge; and 2) horizontal organization identical to 1) with the exception that the center band is axially divided by a vertical break into two colors. The effect is as follows: in the purely horizontal collages the format appears to elongate itself; the uninterrupted runs of color swell outwards, laterally. The colors read in vertical groupings or subdivisions of either two or three bands. In 2), the vertical subdivision in the middle layer imposes a focal point and a central reading. Consequently the complexity of the organization diverts the eye from grasping the whole at one sweep; the pull of the horizontal bands of color and the central subdivision as visual tensions act less to mutually enhance than to cancel each other out. In the purely horizontal collages there is a felt one-to-one relationship between the bands and the format; they meld and yet mutually reinforce each other, the colors reciprocally interacting. There is a perceivable degree of unity to these flaglike forms which overcomes their geometrical organization; the forms read as a unified skin rather than as a mosaic of small forms. Disparity of color and discreteness of form coexist in equal balance within the field.

In 1952, after completing Mediterranée, Kelly began a series of paintings that give form and flesh to the possibilities inherent in these collages, particularly the use of white as a major compositional element. The overall horizontal format of the collages is maintained, but elongated to consume a greater arc of the viewer’s peripheral vision. Kite I, for example, is just over three feet wide and seven and a half feet long; Kite II is narrower and longer—two and a half feet wide and more than twelve feet long; and Red Yellow Blues Whites and Black with White Border, of 1953, is three and a half feet wide but nearly thirteen feet long. Apart from Kite I, which has both horizontal and vertical units, the bulk of this series consistently employs a vertical module of rectilinear forms of equal size, horizontally compacted. Each canvas is a unit in the whole and each is fixed to another, thus maintaining its identity as a discrete unit (though its color may differ from the others). In these paintings Kelly sets up and exploits the modular as an infinitely extendible order of form, isotropic in its unity, with equal physical properties along all axes. It is of no significance whether an odd or even number of canvases is used in this system; the parts will always divide symmetrically. For instance, five units divide into two pairs on either side of a center unit; six units divide either into two halves or into three groups of two. The same process of symmetrical division inheres to all groupings regardless of the numbers involved. These paintings are organized on the use of clearly definable parts, all identical in shape, which become subsumed by symmetry into a whole. Symmetry then becomes a device to define the field and give it oneness or completion.

Kelly’s application and use of color is equally systematic as the form in these paintings, but more subject to trial and error. Only in Kite II is a wholly systematic balance of color employed; it is one that will inform his later and more mature work, especially in the sixties. In Kite II, black and white, the three primaries—red, yellow and blue—and green, are all used. The six colors form operational nexus, for instance, of complementaries (red and green, yellow and blue); of pairings of cold colors (green and blue); of warm pairings (red and yellow); and of dark and light (black and white). It is true that Kelly does not equalize these colors to the extent that he does later. Nor is his use of green extended throughout the range of these paintings; but the system and its application can be discerned without the use of green. For example, Red White Black Yellow White Blue, of 1953, splits into pairs of colors—red and white, black and yellow, white and blue; or in two triadic groupings—red, white, black and yellow, white, blue. Red Yellow Blues Whites and Black with White Border, a seven-paneled painting of 1953, also tests the possibility of ducting white around the edge of the colors. The color in this painting, though identical in strength to his use in other paintings, is in fact far more assertive. The surrounding white channel permits the color to breathe, to further separate each color from adjoining colors; consequently, the visual potency of each color and its individual strength and identity is enhanced. As a result, the colors appear to be more balanced and equalized. In other words, two color systems are at play, though the same colors are used. In the first, the colors are butted, and therefore interact optically in the spectator’s eye. In the second, the white dusting surrounding the color maintains to a greater degree the discrete identity of each color. Thus the overall effect is softer and the same colors in this context appear to the viewer to be more sensuous.

Another aspect of Kelly’s color systemization in these paintings deserves further scrutiny: since color in the canvas shapes our mutual reciprocal, defining and sharing the space of each unit in the modules, color itself takes on spacial characteristics. “Color” becomes both color and space. And white in these paintings takes on several dimensions; it is color (as has been pointed out) and it’s juxtaposition to black, and at the same time it is and “opposite quality” in its capacity to interact with black as tone. Kelly as a further to mention: hell season as white as a buffer in the semi musicians you silence (the intervals between sounds in music being positive elements and scored as such). Throughout these paintings white is cast into a new or extended role to such an extent that it’s neutrality as ground is effectively destroyed.

Unique painting is Red, Yellow Blue and White, of 1952. It consists of five vertical units hung 17 inches apart. It’s overall size is 5 feet by 10 and three-quarter feet. Each vertical unit is identical and structure and subdivided into five conjoined panels 12 inches square. The whole work is bilaterally symmetrical. The first and fifth and second and fourth units made up of identical colors. The white ground of the wall surface trapped between the panels becomes part of the work; thus, the wall and the painting become unified, the one adhering to the other. This device separating the panels, and permitting the wall to bleed through, is to reemerge more emphatically in Kelly’s work in 1966. An interesting aspect of this painting is that Kelly sensed that it was a necessary to actually apply paint. In fact, he used color died cotton in place of canvas to enhance them personal quality of the paint surface.

Also operating throughout (in varying degrees from painting to painting) is a powerful means of spatial indeterminacy. The spectators I move through the space of the paintings, back-and-forth, from side to side, from the center outwards to the edge and back again. By virtue of the manner in which the color and shape continuously group, recruit and create a flux under the viewer’s gaze, the phenomenon in lutes his hold. These paintings are completely open ended; there is no single configuration that can be grasped. If in New York innovative painting of the highest order was being formulated, Kelly, with this group of works, likewise systematically created in Paris, shortly thereafter, the most powerful and radical contribution to purely nonobjective and geometric art since Mondrian. 

Unlike Mondrian’s, however, these paintings are spatially dislocated. Strikingly, they all know that to Cubism, Matisse, Picasso or Arp. They have a built-in sense of motion but they are non-compositional in the traditional sense. Their space is geometrical space, entirely conceived by the mind, and the uniqueness of the space can only be perceived with the painting is perceived as a whole. This, of course, is also true of Mondrian, but Kelly’s sense of hypothetical space is highly generative; his space is more phenomenological the Mondrian’s, who’s art was tied to a much more static configuration—one of trapping or describing space by quitting it’s coordinates. There are no coordinates to these paintings of Kelly; the space is multidimensional, without fixed boundaries. The external boundaries of the field physically exist, to be sure, but once the spectator is subjectively immersed in the experience the manner in which the rim or boundary conditions the interior phenomenon is overlooked. To some extent the power of these paintings has to do with their scale. In order to grasp the total field and observe the fluctuation of form and color, the viewer is forced (by the size of the horizontal stretch of the field) to distance himself until his arc of peripheral vision can take in the whole. At this remove the substance of paint as matter ceases to exist. Mondrian’s paintings, because of their small scale, require close reading; they maintain ground, greed, color and paint substance as discrete entities. By contrast, there is no way of judging the experience in these Kelly paintings other than by perceiving the whole. This is not to infer that all these paintings are equally successful. But the formal discovery is they reveal are no longer nascent; they are asserted in the unconcealed form.

It was to take Kelly another decade or so to bring his discoveries to greater fruition. From the start, however, Kelly seems to have grasped the potency of the spatial implications and the esthetic issues inherent to this body of painting, and he sought to elucidate it in greater depth. This awareness, and Kelly’s resolve to investigate it fully, is evidenced in the one hundred collage variations he made of Red, Yellow, Blues, Whites and Black With White Border.

Three paintings from 1953—Fête a Torcy, Dominican and Train Landscape—link to the series of horizontal flag-type collages in their testing of a horizontal within a vertical format. Within each painting is a centrally positioned bar that hinges the upper to the lower parts. This central bar—a thin black piece of wood in Fête a Torcy and Dominican, and a wider green canvas panel in Train Landscape—acts as a visual fulcrum, which removes any sense of weight or gravitational pull from the bottom panels and thus unifies the field. It induces an edge tension, a feeling that the parts are being pushed or levered towards the center. This use of symmetry prompts in the viewer a sensation of the self-containment of the field. As a consequence the paintings assert themselves as self-contained emblems. In Fête a Torcy and Train Landscape, the colors, which are butted one against another without the mediation of white, are balanced against a brilliant and highly saturated yellow. The power, intensity and saturation of pure colors, butted one against the other, evidently spurred Kelly to investigate the optical potency of pure hues poised one against the other.

In Spectrum I of 1953 (which consists of fourteen thin vertical panels united to form a square five feet by five feet), the field is delineated at its two lateral edges by a brilliant yellow. From the left side it traverses from yellow through green and blue to purple; from the right side, through orange and red to purple.

Kelly never finished Spectrum I, at least not to his satisfaction, and he reverted to the use of black and white (setting aside for almost another decade the further resolution of the problems of color). The ensuing paintings are notable for their austere use of black and white and coupled solutions of paintings identical except for their reversed forms.

Black Two Whites and White Two Blacks,1953, though they appear to derive from the three left-hand vertical panels of Mediterranée, in fact were occasioned by a further attempt to enhance the scale of the module.

Both paintings consist of three panels and Kelly makes no attempt at adjusting either the degree of blackness of the blacks or the whiteness of the whites to compensate for or equalize visual imbalances. It is the nature of the space, the handling of the field and the size and structure of the module that locks these forms into their relationship.

White Square and Black Square, both of 1953, are among the last works Kelly painted in Paris. These two paintings coincidentally hark back to Malevich’s rendition of the basic Suprematist element: The Black Square (1913), which Kelly’s two works resemble in structure to a remarkable degree. (They also, in a sense, resolve, or bring to another area of discourse, issues suggested in a set of 1949 paintings, Plant I and Plant II.) The two paintings, however, are even more non-objective than the dramatically stark painting by Malevich. In Malevich’s painting the black square is poised on a white ground and asserted as a geometric configuration. In contrast, Kelly’s pair of counterpart paintings question the nature of the field and reveal that edge pressure alone can condition the spatial experience. Any accentuation of the boundaries of the field reciprocally accentuate the substance of the field and as a perceptual experience the field becomes modified. In other words, the viewer, when observing Malevich’s painting, “knows" he is observing a black square on a white ground. In contrast, in Kelly’s painting, which consists of a canvas with a painted wooden strip surrounding it, it is the field itself, whether it be a white one or a black one, that subjectively and objectively forces its substance or phenomenal existence on the perception of the viewer. These two remarkable paintings were the last he was to make in Europe.

John Coplans

The article above is an extract, somewhat revised, from a forthcoming book, Ellsworth Kelly, to he published by Abrams in the near future.