PRINT November 1971

Color and Area: New Paintings by Ellsworth Kelly

ELLSWORTH KELLY’S NEW PAINTINGS maximize one of the necessarily crucial and persistent factors in modern abstract art: the interrelation of color and area. The spareness of Kelly’s art has meant that the “correct” fixing of the dimensions of a color for a specific occasion has always been his basic concern; but here, the workings of scale and shape on color find perhaps their most overt, and hence complete, expression to date. Since his working method has never been a matter of linear moves to fixed solutions, but rather involves treating the same “subject matter” at different focal lengths (sometimes depicted on the surfaces, sometimes, close-up, as surface itself), some of the forms of these paintings will not be “new.” (Some, especially, recall certain bipartite works of 1966, and nearly all of the formats may even be discovered compacted in a Paris relief of 1950.) But the point here is not so much that earlier themes are “reworked,” rather that—as the development of not only Kelly’s art has shown—invention alone is of ultimately less importance than a workable repertory which allows greater emphasis on differences of degree and adjustment. And if familiarity with Kelly’s established repertory operates to reduce possible doubts as to the location of his esthetic intentions, equally it allows us to focus more surely on the problematic nature of each individual work—and, paradoxically, our “clear” understanding of intention leaves us with a critical task the more demanding the more a work bares this intention to us. In the new paintings, Kelly lays bare his art to a radical degree. At a time when others have been discovering their art through recomplication, Kelly has physically stripped away all factors which divert from the issue of color area liaisons, banishing for the moment curved forms and depicted shapes—for rectilinearity best releases color without calling undue attention to design, and uniformily colored rectilinear shapes permit drawing to function only as a specific attribute of these shapes—in favor of bold two color-panel combinations, whose colors are restricted to the basic vocabulary he first established in 1952, of the four psychological primaries (red, yellow, blue, and green, each of which has no resemblance to the others) and black and white, a grouping of essential importance to Kelly’s interpretation of color painting.

Kelly’s use of primary hues confirms the significance he attaches to color individuality and to the notion of color difference. These basics are not chosen to provide the widest range of subtractive mixtures since other combinations better achieve this. In fact, the blacks, whites, and yellows remain constant and, while the others display the crucial hue variations dictated by context, they too never diverge excessively from their “source” color. By this I mean that Kelly seems here to be using primary colors, each of which can always be specifically identified as such. Thus, for example, however the blues may differ from one painting to the next, in each given context it is manifestly “blue” that is being used. (This accounts for both the greatest variation in reds and greens and the use of yellow with white and black as a constant, since while there are many reds and greens which may be understood as “red” or “green,” there are a fewer number of yellows that are specifically “yellow.”) This insistence on color declaration separates Kelly from most mainstream color painting which avoids extremes of saturation and brightness in adjacent hues as disrupting surface cohesion, or which bypasses some of the resulting problems by identifying color and surface through staining, where values are thus controlled by the lightest (cream) color of the canvas itself. Kelly, however, has followed the certainly riskier course of working with combinations of highly saturated color where sharp contrasts of hue and of tone inevitably create difficulties in defying flatness. It has been, of course, his special and practical solution to this dilemma to position each color on (or rather, as) a separate physical unit within the painting. By juxtaposing not colors but colored panels he is able to defy, or at least accommodate, the otherwise blatant spatial illusionism. Since combinations of “pure” saturated colors work best to define planes, Kelly does just that by using real slabs of color. Drawing, no doubt, on his experience of collage (whose “real” surfaces first permitted the Cubist style to hold color itself as a property of surface), he totally identifies color and plane and hence avoids the pitfalls of too obviously a “designed” format. This, I take it, is what Kelly means when he says he is not interested in composing and only in “arranging” in terms of color. It has been his unique contribution to amend, as it were, the additive principles of collage to create pictures conceived as wholes wherein the separateness of the color units is enough to accommodate sharp contrast but never enough to destroy surface cohesion. It is both a venturous and precarious art which wishes to solve problems of visual discontinuity by means of physical discontinuity and depends on keenly felt nuances of color and area juxtapositions to tie each surface. Recent works where the two panels combine to form a readily grasped gestalt (square, rectangle, triangle) achieve this more easily than those with an irregular contour, especially those which use dissimilar sized panels and in particular those where adjacent edges are incompletely bonded. This said, however, perhaps the most demanding of the recent works is that which contains juxtaposed black and white rectangles, Two Panels: White and Black, where the absence of any color adjustment places all the burden on area.

This issue of color-panel association conforms, I believe, to the major direction of Kelly’s art. It will be noticed that when he uses panels in relief format, or applies more than one color to each panel, the problem is radically changed; to be successful he is forced to enlarge his color range—as in a recent beautiful single-panel painting, Black, Yellow Orange, where a black rectangle is “framed” on top and sides with a band, not of the usually constant light lemon yellow but with a warmer orange chrome to hold it to the matte black and to reduce the effect of one color being on the other. Tonal contrast must be reduced since panel division is not there to delimit illusion. Mostly, however, the recent paintings are prescribed by the interaction of the two “different” colors and the two discrete shapes of which they are formed. These four variables may frequently be reduced since (as mentioned above) half of Kelly’s six colors remain constant within this system. Indeed, since most of these works combine a constant and adjustable color, it might legitimately be assumed that he welcomes a fixed or “given” color area to which the other may be bonded. This is confirmed by the pictures’ titles which infer that whenever eccentric area combinations are used—that is, whenever colors meet other than across continuous straight edges of similar length—then any constant color there present be understood as “first-stated,” regardless of comparative scale (e.g., Two Panels: Black Square with Red or Two Panels: Yellow with Large Blue). Exceptional in this respect is Two Panels: Blue with White Bar: it will be noted that, of the “eccentric” works, this appears least successful in defying the implications of gravity, though not unsuccessful on other counts. (The significance of implications of gravity in these paintings will be discussed later. But it can be noted here that, in Kelly’s oeuvre, they operate under special circumstances in introducing certain postural effects, and initiate a new direction where area juxtaposition now plays a more “first-stated” role than before although the very nature of the combined-panel paintings has always meant, of course, that shape be physically fixed before color.) In contrast, however, in those paintings where two color areas combine in a simple bipartite manner (Two Panels: Blue Yellow, Two Panels: Black Green, etc.) the constant colors play a different and less “given,” role; and the problem focuses less on what I will call (with respect to those paintings which stress area more) discontinuous coordination than on coordinate bonding within a far more “neutral” framework.

This summary analysis of Kelly’s most apparent structural devices has been made not primarily to explicate his methods (nor, of course, to suggest that these methods embrace fixed rules) but to affirm the centrality to his mainstream development of a bringing together of often contrasting hues or tones (by identifying color and physical area within each work) until, together, they cease to be understood as separate. And both the locking of adjacent color areas into a readily grasped gestalt and the use of color constants to direct neighboring hues are symptomatic of the fact that although area fixing must inevitably precede color adjustment, area itself is—if not quite submissive to color—at least primarily color-containing. If some of the recent works do initiate a new direction it is to give color and area a greater equivalence of effect. By making field unity more difficult to attain (through an irregular total contour) area itself inevitably achieves a new prominence. Discontinuities of area coordination have previously shown themselves in a few of Kelly’s sculptures and also within some of those paintings which employ depicted drawing, but not, so far as I am aware, so blatantly as the very logic of paintings in the way they do here. While hitherto any eccentricities of total shape have scarcely disturbed field unity (as in the single or combined parallelogram paintings, such as the recent Two Panels: Red Yellow) and, indeed, have often served to confirm it (as in those earlier works where neighboring panels taper or splay to join each other), here the T-shaped and asymmetrically abutted rectangle paintings go far to defy the “locked” nature of the earlier work. Or at least seem to seek a new, more demanding and dynamic, kind of locking. Before exploring this new theme of area prominence it is worth dwelling further on how Kelly manipulates his color “vocabulary” (although to discuss color alone necessarily distorts its complementary function as area) since it will appear that the novelty of shape usage has somewhat modified the nature of color juxtapositions.

Theoretically, Kelly’s six “source” colors permit a rich and broad set of fifteen basic permutations, encompassing different kinds of complementary and tonal contrasts and warm and cool mixtures, each variable to the degree that hues diverge from their sources. But these permutations have ever been guided by two constant principles: firstly, the minimization of psychological effects in favor of an essentialist and purely abstract interpretation of color (itself allied to a nonrhetorical understanding of area).

Hence individual hues express—if they “express” anything—nothing but themselves; and their combinations very rarely have any emotive, extrapictorial connotations. (This explains why, hitherto, Kelly seems to have deliberately avoided the pairing of black with physical primaries, especially red and blue, since these combinations look the most overtly “expressive” of any.) And secondly, regardless of Kelly’s specific hue choices, his pictures appear warm or, when cool hues are used, they are cools “infused” with warmth. This, which links Kelly’s work to the broader tradition of American color painting, operates to reduce hardness of contrast and allows an easier optical matchmaking. And here, the nature of Kelly’s surfaces—their uniformity of bland texture—becomes relevant to the associated task of reducing the “localizing” function of the color. Here again, the way black is used is crucial; and Kelly ’s enforcement of its matteness—by spraying the final coat to remove surface reflections—is essential to its survival in the context he uses it.

The significance of these principles, and of Kelly’s color-panel identification and constant/variable color usage, may be readily observed in the recent paintings. One notices, for example, that when an adjustable and a constant are paired, the adjustable remains “purer” (to maintain balanced intensity) than when two adjustables are used together (Two Panels: Blue Yellow, cf. Two Panels: Blue Green); or that a warm pairing (e.g., Two Panels: Red Yellow) permits a more firmly insisted boundary than when cools juxtapose (Two Panels: Blue Green) appearing actually warmer, from containing two adjusted hues, than the more strongly drawn and intensely colored “cooler” painting). Or again, that where two adjustable complementaries are used (red and green), the “red” is moved one step nearer the green (which is itself “warmed”) to accommodate contrast, as in the triangular Two Panels: Green Orange or in Two Panels: Orange with Green. And the success of this fixing of color to surface is such as to even repudiate the “window” effect of the latter work. Where, however, hue variation is not possible, as in its companion black and white painting (Two Panels: White Square with Black), are a disposition must be changed to compensate. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, where black and white exist alone the burden is all on area. To achieve success the literal shape must carry an even stronger conviction than otherwise: the two “colors” must somehow hold or “possess” their respective panels, acknowledging contrast as their natural roles, and yet ally clearly and uncomplicatedly so that one can never appear on the other. In this respect, Two Panels: WhiteSquare with Black is less straightforward (the enclosure and smaller area of the white cannot help but insist on some degree of figure ground illusion) than works which bring together similar areas and shapes (as in the triangular Two Panels: Black White) or those where a discontinuous coordination of adjacent shapes does not disguise, but rather affirms, the fact that distinction is a necessary attribute of this genre (e.g., Two Panels: Black with White Bar II). This example, however, takes us to those paintings in Kelly’s oeuvre which innovate by giving area distinction this new stress.

The new “discontinuously coordinated” paintings take two forms: T-shaped works (or, as Kelly describes them, paintings with “bars” of color which modify the square or rectangle below them) and works that juxtapose two rectangles of different sizes, where the rectangles may either share a common base or one may “hang” beside and below the other.

The T-shaped paintings are most easily grasped in the context of Kelly’s previous development. They have certain emblematic or “heraldic” connotations, even, possibly, a certain vestigial anthropomorphism; they are relatable to the bilaterally symmetrical and excerpted grid themes in his repertory (two angle paintings or three double-square ones, suitably arranged, could give their forms). They are in some respects preceded by a pair of 1953 black and white paintings, each of three horizontally positioned squares, which employ interval in a similar way. But, this said, they spell out in avery new way that color and structure have a one-to-one identity which area itself can help accentuate. Thus while, as before, physical discontinuity affirms the visual continuity of the surface, the very blatantness of “stating” the two panels seems now to take greater cognizance of the role played by contrast—mirroring it, almost, in the axial configuration of the image. It is more readily seen to contain two separate components. And yet the emphasis of this image is more than enough to include them, while at the same time the “good gestalt” enhances the brightness and saturation (and hence contrast) of the colors. Since only three paintings of this type have been made (and any future ones may well change their look) one hesitates to speculate on their evidence alone; and yet it is noticeable that all make the most of emphatic contrast. Tonal contrast (black-white-and blue-white) and the new “expressive” contrast (black-red) states color “difference” to a maximum, now difference of area has become influential.

These same paintings also raise issues of another kind: inevitably their stated two-part format implies some kind of postural response. By this I do not mean the somehow invited in filling of negative wall space (a theme Kelly is beginning to specify in works which have two end-placed rectangles beneath a bar) but one’s awareness of the gravity exerted on the two panels. But, strangely, it isn’t the idea of suspension that prevails: the density of the lower panel seems raised by (not suspended on)the horizontal bar. The insistence of this lower color is such as to press the paintings forward and hold their position (this optical resistance of gravity incidentally mirroring the physical resistance of gravity peculiar to the status of paintings). And the success of these works may be gauged by the degree to which the lower panel thus “holds” itself without allowing the bar to seem merely an appendage to it.

The other group of paintings, in contrast, if open to broader possibilities, takes on, in some cases, far greater (and more hazardous) discontinuities of juxtaposition. Where panels share a common base (Two Panels: Blue with Small Red; Two Panels: Yellow with Large Blue) this serves to insist on their shared planarity; but in those works that join panels near their corners (Two Panels: Black Square with Red; Two Panels: Yellow Square with Red; Two Panels: Black Square with Blue) the smallness of the joint risks a look of insecurity: that the lower panel might slide down and off its parent form. Or, even, continue to slide, for the format inevitably suggests that the lateral panels “moved down” to their present positions. In this respect alone, these paintings hark back to Kelly’s 1949 painting, Window (MoMA, Paris) which, though very different in looks, contains also an implication of potential movement. The “held-up” suggestion of the T-shaped paintings is echoed here; except here it is the upper panel which must resistor balance the effects of visual gravity on its partner. And while once more hesitating to speculate on limited evidence it is noticeable that Kelly has reserved constant, “first-stated,” colors for the upper panels. But the diagonal orientation of the bonding here also risks a certain “warped” appearance, a risk inversely proportional to the size of the bonded area since a small area of contact between colors provides less opportunity for them to hold the same plane. And yet, the taking-on of risks of this kind gives these paintings their new potentials. At their best they overcome any suggestion of warp and the two panels of each work belong so firmly where they are and nowhere else. This confirms Kelly’s very considerable gifts as a colorist and judge of comparative area. The eccentricities of their perimeter shapes can undoubtedly threat en their purely abstract status. The “expressive” color combinations are unsettling at first (recalling earlier pioneer abstractionists). Kelly’s ever important desire to avoid rhetorical implications may have as yet prevented some paintings from growing to a rather fuller scale which might more suitably accommodate the new demands of area. But these are already important new works and initiate (as much as the 1966 paintings which first broke with “biometric” design did) a whole new set of resources for Kelly’s art. But, as his previous development has shown, this will neither repudiate his past nor exclusively direct his future but rather provide a new open grouping to be added to at will.

By way of conclusion, some broader speculations provoked by Kelly’s art seem worth noting, if only briefly. One of Kelly’s major achievements has been to preserve within his work an evenness of quality perhaps unique in American art. This seems directly attributable to the spareness of his paintings (their being restricted to a minimal number of variables) and to their potentiality for cross-reference (the mutual interactions within a group of Kelly paintings, by drawing attention from the individual work the more that work is explicable in the context of its neighbors, intensify likeness). While, say, in Noland’s recent paintings the common parameters set up a framework for widely visible differences in the treatment of very many variables (and hence readily elicit judgments of comparative value), with Kelly “likeness” of effect (if not of looks) is more tightly controlled (and to question one work is more likely here to mean questioning the whole enterprise than with Noland). The paintings do, of course, vary, but they vary in the way paintings by Mondrian or Malevich vary, that is, as different manifestations of a specific and ever constant endeavor.

To characterize this endeavor, epithets like insistent, integral, undemonstrative, and absolutist come to mind, for the closely knit nature of Kelly’s art maximizes the rigorously abstract and systematic features of color and area usage. His art makes no easy concessions to the viewer, rarely contains any allusive or affable pictorialism, and absolutely refuses to equivocate. In one sense, these factors create built-in safeguards against real failure. Failures, when they occur, are of degree rather than the total lapses possible within a more muscular kind of color painting. And if this means that Kelly thus denies himself a readily emotive effect or a fuller orchestration of color it is because his sensibility reaches rather towards an absolute specificity of shape (in comparison to which Stella’s later paintings appear overadjusted) and a positive use of contrast unusual for modernist painting. Like Mondrian, his colored slabs embrace equally systems of hue and value and, in their undemonstrative facing, possess something of the iconic simplicity and quiet authority of a private devotional art. In achieving this without rhetoric, Kelly has marked out for himself a special place, apart and self-contained, in recent painting. And where his work does relate to other concerns, old and new (to Minimalist and reductivist esthetics, to systems theories, to ’60s shaped-canvas art, to artists as widely different as Josef Albers and Ron Davis), it now has the look of a kind of veteran standard, showing just how precisely the normative grammar of modernism can be defined. And if this suggests that Kelly is a terminal artist—that he has so clearly defined the area of competence for post-ascetic geometric abstraction that few are likely to follow his immediate example—then he remains nevertheless an important model for the rigorous fixing of boundaries for an art. A firmly geometric art like Kelly’s has never elicited wide sympathies in America. Perhaps the boundaries it fixes seem too narrow to include the tough and pragmatic venturesomeness we have come to expect from major painting; or perhaps what others have done to geometric abstraction (Vasarely, for example) has seemed to discredit the mode itself. The very nature and history of this kind of painting does in fact tend to justify these apprehensions. What began as a richly productive involvement with art as a circumscribed language became too often simply a kind of meta-language of art. That is, the boundaries it fixed, instead of actually creating art, merely demarcated an area for didactic games or investigations about art. Such a purely “conceptual” activity can only be justified in its philosophies, and not in the art it produces. It is one of the ironies of recent history that many of those who seek to dismiss an art like Kelly’s for its narrowness are those who support precisely this kind of meta-artistic, “conceptual” activity in different forms. The crucial issue in modern art is not only for or against boundaries, but how boundaries are defined. Like criticism, the quality of an art depends upon the questions it asks—but it must ask them in the language, not of it. Kelly art, it seems to me, has always been ineluctably self-critical of its parameters—tailoring them to fit its current focus—and this accounts for its consistent fluency as well as for its fluidity. Although artists like Albers and Nicholson have made important art within the tradition of geometric abstraction first established in prewar Europe, Kelly is alone in finding new ways of extending the tradition. The very apparent beauty of his new pictures should serve to remind us of this fact.

John Elderfield

Ellsworth Kelly’s new paintings will be on exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery from November 3rd until November 27th.