PRINT November 1973

Ellsworth Kelly at the Modern

IF WE AREN’T JADEDLY INTOLERANT of painting, if we can overcome certain physical obstacles, and if we can cut through the wordy, prosaic, disguised obviousness of the catalogue essay, we come away from the exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art seeing Ellsworth Kelly as one of the most remarkable of all contemporary American artists. Like Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, he is a highly chromatic American painter who developed his modernism in Paris, although he is more of a loner and individualist, and both more conceptual and more empirical, than they were. Similarly, Kelly’s concern with color as an essence may resemble the transatlantic modernism of Albers. But for Kelly color does not serve experimentation aimed at superexperiential principles; Kelly’s principle is the pleasure principle. It would be easy to be misled by the ostensible classicism of his designs. Color for him is more bodily than mental. Form becomes a transparent vessel, and the sensations and emotions of color become the real rationale of design. But that anticipates.

The exhibition itself seems imperfectly selected and badly hung. Important works, even when they are in nearby museums or when they are of critical importance such as, Three Panels: Red Yellow Blue I, 1963, are not included. What is shown is left to strike us in a disorganized way. A few paintings by Kelly confront us at the back of the lobby, on entering the museum. To get to the exhibition proper we ask directions, find the small room that opens off to the right, observe, sense that there must be more somewhere, and pass on to the gallery of contemporary painting and sculpture—more on that momentarily—in which one painting by Kelly can be found. In fairness, the painting in question is near the door to the corridor at the end of which we do find the main body of the exhibition, although by then one may have wandered off into the garden—having seen Kelly’s sculptures through the glass wall.

Actually, having to pass through the contemporary art gallery provides a useful if accidental setup to the main exhibit. We are prepared for the tremendous importance of Kelly’s art by seeing how pertinent his extensive and accomplished career is to the art of the last few years. In this context, Robert Mangold’s 1/2 W Series, 1968, suggests Kelly’s relief Saint Louis II, 1950, and, perhaps even more, Kelly’s superb White Plaque: Bridge Arch and Reflection, 1952–55. Kelly’s Black Square and White Square of 1953 (not in the exhibition) anticipate Jo Baer’s Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue, 1964–65, especially when we note that black and white are regularly handled by Kelly as being interchangeable with spectral colors. Al Held’s Big N, 1965, compares with Kelly’s Paname, 1957 (not in exhibition). Even the perspectival tug against the plane in Ron Davis’ Ring, 1968, resembles the quasi-illusionistic thrusts of paintings by Kelly of the same year. It is not that artists as various as these necessarily depend on or derive secondhand from Kelly; the important thing is that Kelly’s work of even 20 years ago articulated issues that still preoccupy us. And it would be easy to extend the list far beyond the names of those artists whose works happen to hang concurrently in this particular room: Kelly’s two-panel “relief” paintings of 1962, for instance, relate to works by Ludwig Sander in the late ’60s and to still later works by Chuck Hinman. Kelly’s very catholicity may be one reason why it has been easy not to deal extensively with him while he has been most relevant.

The art becomes its own source. There is at least one visual parallel with Duchamp: the painting/relief/construction, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, 1949. It relates typologically to Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, 1920, and Brawl at Austerlitz, 1921.

Some of the motifs that Kelly abstracts from the real world resemble, in their initial conceptualism and diagrammatically abstract realism, types mobilized by Jasper Johns. Tennis Court, 1949, for instance, suggests both the game-diagram function of Johns’ targets and the descriptive-topographic feature of the maps, and Kilometer Marker, 1949, supplies obvious grounds of comparison. Also, Johns was pulling canvases apart—Painting with a Ball, 1958, when Kelly was locking them together. The purely chromatic paintings consisting of vertical bands—each of a single color—within one overall rectangle, can even evoke flags, especially when the color bands are wide: thus Red Orange White Green Blue, 1968, might be taken literally as a superimposition of the French and Irish tricolors. When there is any resemblance it’s generally out of gratitude for a readymade design, a more generally Johns-like feeling that thanks to it painting can move on right away to more pressing issues.

In New York, 1957, (not in exhibition) and related works we also find lettering used as an intrinsically abstract but real (even presentational) motif for thoroughly abstract painting. Naturally the styles of the two artists are so disjunct that even when there is thematic congruence, exploitation of the raw material in each case takes a divergent direction. Johns combines the conceptual stability and neutrality of his disembodied cipher with a highly active and plastic paint application that avoids bright color. Kelly likes to discover a pattern in the transient accidents of noticing things. Only when he mimetically transforms the motif does it acquire its impersonal and immutable character, and at that point—unlike Johns—it also blooms in vibrant color. Johns renders the objective palpably unique; Kelly cools off and monumentalizes a subjective observation involving similar material, and then permits it to become a mere occasion for an even more vital interest—color and tonal contrast in their unqualified essences.

Kelly’s paintings belong to several different categories at the same time. One of the broadest distinctions is between those which still present the canvas in terms of formal subdivisions checked in compositional balance, and those in which an entire canvas, monochromatic and altogether without surface inflection, exists only as a detached component of an array of such canvases meant to be taken as a simultaneous totality. Some of the most powerful works, however, fall between these two extremes—like those in which a color still resides in a compartment and yet seems about to dominate the entire surface or else to be breaking away from it. Thus in North River, 1959, the dominant blue rhomboid may seem either to be falling onto the white ground—about to obliterate it—or else to he tearing free, pulling with and against it. Either way the rhomboid form seems to be a square somehow modified by the tension of its context, and either way the relation of that form to the framing rectangle has the silent anxiety and drama of a tipping steel plate by Richard Serra.

In Brooklyn Bridge, 1962, there is a tense but articulate balance between the assertion of design and the transmission of purely chromatic sensation—as there is in the artful balance of tensions and compressions in the actual bridge itself. Neither really overtakes the other or is about to. Incidentally, I think Eugene Goossen’s emphasis, in the catalogue, on the paired ogival arches of the bridge towers as the source of Kelly’s motif somewhat oversimplifies the issue. The way the arcs press in across the left and right edges of the canvas, gracefully swinging beyond them into the rectangle and following out in a smooth return, relates even more closely to that beautiful part of the Brooklyn Bridge, where the cables actually swing down below the roadway before they reach their anchorings. Moreover, that is precisely the feature singled out by Albert Gleizes in his Brooklyn Bridge of 1915.

The paintings consisting of vertical bands of intense spectral color—whether the bands are areas on a single canvas or separately stretched canvases in themselves with patches of white wall showing in between—are probably Kelly’s greatest contribution. I can see this even though many of them strike me as too exclusively optical. I remember once studying one in a museum and thinking that some color in the violet range seemed implied by the sequence of bands but was missing. Soon I noticed that over the entire painting a violet halo hovered, brought out by the glare of bright light on the canvas and on the white wall behind. The most impressive of all Kelly’s spectral paintings that I have seen is in this show, Spectrum IV, 1967, whose 13 vertical panels are fixed together into a 9’ 9” square that throbs with balanced energies. Somehow this painting manages to be both symmetrical and asymmetrical at the same time: not that there is anything unresolved about it, but it seems satisfying in a multifaceted way. The colors are so intense that they retinally invade one another, with compensations or oppositions forming at the far edge of each adjacent band; yet the picture is altogether flat, stable, and unified. Without this gratifying sense of resolution in the very face of disharmony Kelly’s paintings would be merely stimulating, which is a much more vulgar satisfaction than what he offers.

In the later ’60s the relations between one kind of single canvas, composed in compartments, and a similar kind of painting built up from separately stretched but attached canvases, became deliberate and close. Earlier there had been no inevitable sequence from one canvas painted in compartments to one painting formed of several attached canvases (once the progression took hold the way was automatically prepared for the works composed of canvases that do not even abut). As the typology developed—without compromising the individual work—things became more systematic. Thus, after we see a large squarish rectangle contained by a nearly square rectangle and fused to its edge, we find fused pairs of near-squares. And after the single canvas is so divided into rectangles that there seems to be a capping member along the top (Black over White, 1966), then we are introduced to a capping rectangle that extends outward left and right beyond the boundaries of the lower one, as a separately stretched canvas (Two Panels: White over Blue, 1968). Implicit in these sequences is a more analytical and systematic approach than earlier on, so much so that the paintings can almost seem to be phases of one work metamorphosing in time. The significance, however, appears to be less in the fact that groups of pictures may quasi-conceptually be seen as mere components of one or more superworks, than in the idea of getting away from pictorialism for good. Even a picture of a square—whether by Malevich or Kelly himself—is impure by these standards (which have about them a certain puritanism). It is as though two rectangles fused together belonged to a higher logical or even ethical order than one actual rectangle containing what could be construed as a mere image of a rectangle.

What I really like about Kelly is that such concerns arise only when the work itself leads to them; the painting never becomes a disposable or redundant feature of some nonconcrete investigation. The only works which disappoint me are those which get involved with distortions and ambiguities that tend to bulge the picture plane. It is one thing to establish a patternistic ambiguity while at the same time holding it in check; it is another matter to subvert attention with an illusionism that distracts from more refined considerations, as in Three Panels: Red Yellow Blue V, 1968. The problem in that painting is its insistent directionality, thrusting at one particular angle into an unpleasantly illusionistic space. In other circumstances, when the perspectival recession is complicated by more than one directional drift, as in the handsome Two Panels: Red Green, 1968, we don’t get distracted, and the plane is enervated instead of simply bent. The difference is between contradiction and ambiguity.

Kelly is not a great sculptor. He is too involved—luckily—with form and color in relation to the plane. His tendency in sculpture is to take what is really a painting motif and play with it in a sort of vacuum, without the hassles of a frame and the implied relations of figure and ground. This is no doubt useful experience for the painter, but to this observer his sculpture is only interesting. And where it is interesting it can be too cleverly topological: simple ideas about front and back, the wonder that a folded plane can physically support itself—not enough sculptural meat. The coloring of the sculptures underscores the nature of Kelly’s own involvement with them. White is used for “backs,” as against facades, and when in one piece Kelly looks to see what happens when you paint both sides white—White Sculpture, 1968—even the work’s minimal sculpturesqueness expires. Instead of some kind of antiobject the piece looks essentially like a painting with something funny done to it.

The topological curiosity is also characteristic of Kelly’s drawings, at least of those of leafy plants, which are most familiar. The plant drawings are unmitigatedly lovely, although their relation to Matisse’s drawing style is sometimes more literal than painting would allow. There are some really beautiful drawings in the show, but we don’t get to see anything as unusual as the amazingly terse and melodious pencil landscape Le Pont d’Austerlitz, 1949, despite the fact that that drawing, typically for Kelly, contains forms that reverberate right down to the sublimely expansive shallow arc in a horizontal lozenge of Red Curve II, 1972—one of the finest paintings shown. Naturally we are grateful for what we do see. The Study for a Black and White Relief, 1952, has a simplicity of conception with a complexity of implication—white/black, left/right, cut down/built up, open/closed, top and bottom/center, contained/expanding—that generates a power and scale that we might expect only if Kelly’s experience had consisted entirely of reliefs. Nine Colors on White, 1953, is the most beautiful purely abstract collage I have ever seen not by Matisse.

Kelly’s paintings are both lyrical and abstract, yet they have nothing to do with what is called lyrical abstraction. The lyricism arises mostly from a crispness and severity of design which is met and complemented by a willful uniformity and pressing intensity of color. Both the heavily designed paintings and the purely chromatic ones (which involve an absolute and ultimate simplification of design) achieve an immediate yet altogether abstract voluptuousness. Where other types of abstract painting veer toward landscape overtones, Kelly’s forms may seem to tend toward a bodily shapeliness. Kelly’s paintings look built.

Kelly’s art has an athletic quality that is totally unlike the dynamic athleticism of Action Painting. His is instead firm and static, and its energy is highly contained; it makes deceptively simple moves with tremendous strength and control. Where an Expressionist would box Kelly does isometrics. Flirtations with classicism seem a part of the interest in simplicity and hardness of form, as they were, for instance, in the ideas of T. E. Hulme (another soldier) and everybody influenced by him after the First World War. The great thing about Kelly is the way he overcomes the boring and pedantic—and reactionary—tendencies of that contingent with his fantastic sensitivity to color and its irrational, emotive capabilities. (The spectral arrays may be a careful way of insuring that no one tone overcomes us completely.) Even the colorism of Matisse becomes entirely American in its directness, its sweep,and its brassy blare.

Joseph Masheck