PRINT October 1996

Unfashionably Late

PAINTING IN THE 90’S HAS become a tightening circle, a game of diminished rewards and opportunities. Every year a “new” painting is touted; every season brings a “hot” young artist. For all these claims, little work stands out. Midcareer mediocrities receive vast retrospectives, pseudomasters reign at the Met. The few painters we can point to with confidence, we praise excessively, out of a nostalgia for better times (our endless lionizing of Gerhard Richter, for example, or our hesitancy to criticize Robert Ryman, whose process-based abstraction has finally lost its freshness). As for the current fashion favoring painting that explores identity-based content, it has become enough to inscribe a few signifiers of gender, race, or queerness to suggest a frisson of newness, a trend the market has certainly encouraged. But it remains to be seen whether this drive to pictorialize the political will accomplish a convincing integration of content and form.

To paint or not to paint: serious practitioners have faced this dilemma since the early days of Modernism. The alternate routes mapped by Kasimir Malevich and Marcel Duchamp became paradigmatic for the rest of our century. Whereas Duchamp abandoned painting, Malevich conceived the medium as a “zero degree,” a blank slate for renewal, opening up the Modernist tradition to come. Ellsworth Kelly is arguably the leading painter still working this latter vein. Yet he has always followed a path that, in retrospect, seems slightly out of sync. Leaving New York for Paris during the late ’40s, as the Abstract Expressionists hit their stride, he encountered Jan Arp, Georges Vantongerloo, and other representatives of European abstraction, the very tradition Clement Greenberg considered spent. Kelly found otherwise, developing a unique way of working that combined Dadaist strategies of chance and recombination with an indexical tracing of motifs, a method Yve-Alain Bois has described as anticompositional.1 It seems an unlikely combination, this practice of outlining things seen (a bridge, a window) only to confound the resemblance through anticompositional means. Yet it generated much of his best work.

Kelly’s hard-edged abstraction must have seemed idiosyncratic when he returned to New York in the mid ’50s, the moment of Action Painting’s “triumph” and Cedar Tavern brawls. Avoiding the gestural excesses of those years, he redacted his method even further, producing works focused on a single shape, as well as shaped canvases, a format he’d explored early on. These elegant, spare pieces eventually found an audience of supporters in the Minimal ’60s, yet his practice was little understood on its own terms: the deictic basis of his work, however attenuated, was at odds with Minimalism’s antiallusionism, its denial of reference. (What could be further from Frank Stella’s or Donald Judd’s abstractions than Kelly’s restoration of a mimetic image, through indexical means, in his drawings after plants and flowers?)

To this day, Kelly works against prevailing trends: a painter of formal and esthetic intent carrying on at a moment when content suppresses form. In the face of painting’s current enervation, Kelly continues to persevere, making a case for the medium’s vitality by producing work that is insistently his alone. What can we learn from a retrospective of Kelly’s work? The rewards of sticking to one’s guns.

James Meyer is assistant professor of art history at Emory University.



1. On this phase of Kelly’s work, see Yve-Alain Bois’ remarkable study “Ellsworth Kelly in France: Anti-Composition in its Many Guises,” in Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948-1954 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1992), pp. 9-36.