PRINT April 2016

Molly Warnock

Ellsworth Kelly, Painting for a White Wall, 1952, oil on canvas, five joined panels, 23 1/2 × 71 1/4". © Ellsworth Kelly.

Yve-Alain Bois, Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Reliefs, and Sculpture, Volume One, 1940–1953. Paris: Cahiers d’Art, 2015. 383 pages.

LIKE MOST READERS, presumably, I come to this impressive tome—Yve-Alain Bois’s first installment in what promises to be a six-volume set—already in the author’s debt. For nearly a quarter century, beginning with his 1992 essay “Ellsworth Kelly in France: Anti-Composition in Its Many Guises,” the esteemed art historian has set the standard for scholarship on Kelly’s expansive oeuvre. Focusing in particular on the artist’s decisive early work abroad, he has ingeniously illuminated the system through which Kelly created his iconic abstractions for more than six decades. Now Bois brings us the definitive reference on the artist’s beginnings, from his first forays into painting through his student years in Boston to his prodigious output in France during the years 1948–53, which make up the preponderance of this volume. Fine-grained, object-specific entries (sometimes combining two or more related works) address 141 paintings, sculptures, and reliefs and draw extensively on archival materials, including many never-before-published letters, photographs, and preliminary sketches and collages.

At the center of this account, as with Bois’s previous writing on Kelly, is a claim about anti- or noncomposition (he uses the terms interchangeably): The artist comes into his own precisely by seeking to “efface” himself. Kelly, Bois argues, deliberately eradicates the traces of his hand and severely restricts his decision-making. These imperatives are seen as traversing virtually the whole of the artist’s visually heterogeneous work in France, profoundly separating it from any number of contemporaneous or subsequent currents—whether the European paradigms of geometric abstraction or the reduced forms and commercial colors of American Minimalism and Pop—that its fruits might appear, superficially, to resemble.

Bois sets Kelly’s commitment to noncomposition primarily within a context of art-historical rivalry, centered on Kelly’s relationship to Picasso. The older artist appears in these pages as the consummate creator—a figure unsurpassed, if not in fact indomitable, in terms of sheer protean inventiveness. Unable to outdo the master on his own terrain, Bois suggests, the younger man opted to chart a radically different course, one predicated on the elimination of subjectivity as such: “If there was one thing Picasso did not know how to do, it was how to erase himself, how not to invent, how not to compose.” Kelly would be most original where his involvement was least apparent: in the production of seemingly “impersonal” art.

As Bois underlines, this engagement is not just an aesthetic matter, but a broadly moral stance. As it appears in these pages, Kelly’s ethos is highly singular—indeed, it is an ethos of singularity, of the bottomless distinctiveness of all things: “His art,” Bois writes, “is paradoxically the least abstract: it is impervious to universals, it knows only of particulars.” This character finds paradigmatic expression in Kelly’s turn to discrete, clearly delimited panels—here arranged in a modular grid (Colors for a Large Wall, 1951), there arrayed in a serial row (Painting for a White Wall, 1952)—as well as in what Bois casts as a kind of chromatic nominalism, bound in the artist’s conviction as to the absolute specificity of every hue. (This fundamentally atomistic conception is at times thwarted, as Bois describes brilliantly, by what he dubs the “gregarious” aspect of color—the tendency of nearby pigments to interact.) Along the way, strategies based on chance take the lead precisely because of this presumed absence of universals, determining the arrangement of otherwise sheer adjacencies and abutments.

Bois sees the justly celebrated Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris as pivotal. Completed in November 1949, that tableau-objet—to use Kelly’s term—follows from a suite of Picassoesque experiments in pictorial alchemy that transform, for example, a Turkish toilet into a stubby-armed Cyclops (Toilette) or a cluster of pebbles into a countenance (Face of Stones and Yellow Face; all 1949). Each painting takes a found element as its point of departure, and presents that motif in a frontal, rigorously centered fashion; but it also takes greater or lesser liberties with this given. Window, by contrast, marks the first mature instance of the artist’s inaugural mode of anticomposition, what Bois calls the “transfer”: the selection and replication of a specific, “already-made” structure—in this case, the distinctive window at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, presented in miniature and at slightly different proportions—whose image is now made wholly congruent with the support. That Window is actually a relief comprising two joined, vertically stacked canvases (one facing forward, the other backward) with wooden strips deployed to denote mullions further enhances the literal materiality of the whole. The result, Bois suggests, is a resolutely nonmetaphoric, anti-illusionistic mode of presentation—and Kelly’s decisive liberation from the “anxieties” of composition.

For all the difference Window made, however, the volume also shows striking continuities between the artist’s anticompositional abstraction and some of his very earliest works as, above all, a painter of single-figure compositions. Self-Portrait with Bugle, 1947—a roughly life-size, full-length depiction, completed while Kelly was still a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—is the largest and arguably the most ambitious of these paintings, and clearly mattered to the artist: Kelly took a photograph of the work to Paris and showed it to Fernand Léger when considering whether to enter the latter’s academy. It portrays the young man nearly head-on, with a forward-directed gaze: His powerfully corporeal presence appears largely trued to the narrow vertical format and almost flush with the picture plane. The arms hang; the somewhat ungainly feet are solidly planted. The overall impression is of static self-containment—both of the depicted painter and, as if through that figure, of the painting as a whole. Even the out-of-use instrument underscores the stillness, as if actively producing silence. (Léger’s response, as Bois reports it, was to urge Kelly to “go back to Boston and blow his bugle”—as if in rejection of precisely this deliberate inexpressiveness.) And yet a sense of withdrawal is equally strong. The artist’s hips angle back slightly into a shallow, penumbral space; the oblique floorboards accentuate his partial retreat; darkness veils the visage. Kelly’s inscrutable image is at once proffered and withheld: He faces us, one might say, in effacement.

What would it mean, I find myself wondering, to see Window as a repetition and displacement of Self-Portrait with Bugle? The tight, upright formats encourage the comparison: The two works have near-identical proportions. (Indeed, the relationship between them is closer than the one between Window and its physical source.) Read against the earlier painting, the 1949 relief registers as rendering absolute much of what had remained equivocal: Just-off symmetry becomes rigorous bilateral mirroring; depicted corporeality gives way to unvarnished objecthood; dramatic chiaroscuro yields to flat, cleanly divided fields of gray and white. Even the black strips that stand in for mullions register as at once exacerbating and materializing the earlier painting’s rhetorical stance, its simultaneous presentation and barring of access. Together, the two paintings raise a question about the nature of impersonality. Is it a matter of overcoming subjectivity or of deliberately evading it?

In this volume, Bois’s analyses go “behind” the pictures; they are grounded in the patient excavation and reconstruction of the increasingly complex logic that drives the chance-based work in particular. In so doing, these texts differ notably from the art historian’s indispensable accounts of Barnett Newman’s abstraction—writing that turns fully on, and never ceases to return to, the experience of being in front of a painting, of finding oneself summoned and singled out by a given canvas. There is room to think that this difference in approach is itself attuned to a basic contrast between the two bodies of work, the ways in which they do or do not wish to face us. Newman wants us to become aware of “specific and separate embodiments of feeling” (to take up a phrase quoted in Bois’s 1988 essay “Perceiving Newman”), whereas the young Kelly, as we encounter him in these pages, seems to want us to intuit, if not his exact procedure, then something like a fact of procedure: something that shows but does not quite make itself present. The rationale that Bois details with such precision and lucidity would then be a knot tied within the endless complexities of our mutual facing—the central difficulty with which any future writing on Kelly will have to reckon. For, as this masterful book makes clear, we are not yet finished either with Kelly or with the painterly stakes of impersonality.

Molly Warnock is an assistant professor in the history of art at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.