PRINT April 2016

Richard Serra

Ellsworth Kelly, Colors for a Large Wall, 1951, oil on canvas, sixty-four joined panels, 94 1/2 × 94 1/2". © Ellsworth Kelly.

IN 1964, I received a traveling fellowship from Yale to study painting in Paris. There I saw Phil Glass every day. He introduced me to the work of John Cage and together we would read Silence (1961) out loud. The potential for chance became for me an alternative, and I took it seriously.

The following year I received a Fulbright to study in Florence. I began working on a painting and stretched an eight-by-eight-foot canvas. I snapped grid lines across it to form sixty-four squares, opened up thirty or forty cans of colored paint, got a stopwatch, and decided to arbitrarily fill in each square, one every two minutes. There was a lot of unnecessary busy brushwork and the edges were not that tight. I was apprehensive but interested in pursuing the problem.

The day after I finished my painting, I went to the American Cultural Center to look at the latest art periodicals and saw a photo of Ellsworth Kelly’s Colors for a Large Wall, painted in 1951. To put it mildly, I was shocked and deflated. This work closed off all options for continuing with my colored-grid folly.

Kelly had not laid out a grid on a canvas beforehand. Instead, he had juxtaposed separate panels, leaving no visible brushwork. It also appeared that the colored modules were arranged by chance—another zinger. This early work was a complete break from Mondrian, from European abstraction. This was not domestic picture making, not an enlarged easel painting. The ambition of the scale was architectural.
There was no precedent for this work.

Richard Serra is an artist based in New York.