PRINT April 2016

Yve-Alain Bois

Ellsworth Kelly, Red with White Relief, 2002, oil on canvas, two joined panels, 81 × 63 × 2 5/8". © Ellsworth Kelly.

MY FIRST THOUGHT, when I got the news of Ellsworth Kelly’s death, was that the world had suddenly gone dimmer. I could no longer expect the gush of joy that always engulfed me when discovering his most recent works in Spencertown, New York. But while it is true that he is no longer here to surprise us with utterly new twists and turns in his practice—which became ever more playful as he grew older—I soon realized that I had been wrong to think that way. For the work remains, and it remains as a rock of optimism no matter how grim the world becomes around us. It is to this constant freshness that I would like to pay tribute.

Those of us who knew him well often heard Ellsworth lamenting about this or that, but his art always contradicted whatever gloomy mood he might be in. His work was, and will forever be, upbeat, and he himself was invariably upbeat when hard at work. Self-doubt very rarely troubled him, even though he was his own harshest critic. He could be hilariously funny, and he was quite a storyteller, but he kept irony at bay from his work. He had no distance from it. He was perhaps the last happy modernist.

I have often wondered about Ellsworth’s consistent passion and energy—especially during the last years of his life, when his health was failing. Obsession was part of it, to be sure—and he was more obsessed with his own work than any other artist I have met—but that is not enough. A remark that Matisse made a few months before his death helped me understand where this was coming from: “The artist . . . has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time: He has to look at life as he did when he was a child.” In many ways, I think that’s what Ellsworth achieved.

He was very fond of recalling childhood memories—and his memory was spectacular. One of the events he liked most to recollect happened when he was trick-or-treating with a group of friends. Approaching a house at night, he had marveled at the shapes and colors that he could see from afar, framed by a window, in a brightly lit room—only to discover, on moving closer and peeking through the window, that the interior in question was utterly banal, that nothing there could justify his interest. Any other child would have shrugged this off, but Ellsworth insisted (no doubt as his cohort was impatiently waving him back) on returning to the same exact spot where that initial magic encounter had sparked, so that he could verify it, so to speak.

“Finding the exact spot” could be the motto for how Ellsworth’s vision operated. I think it explains, in large part, his extraordinary capacity to return to his past works as an endless cornucopia: to take a collage he had made twenty, thirty, even sixty years earlier and then realize it in painting—but without any editing or adaption, changing nothing except the size and the medium. That first spot, in other words, remained exactly right. He had no control over the spot itself—he was just immensely open to catching sight of it, eyes wide-open. He had no theoretical compass, no blinders of any sort. Paradoxically, for someone who always sought to expunge subjectivity from his work, his only guide was his intuition. He never knew why he was attracted to such-and-such a shape, why the particular curve of this particular shadow so struck him that he had to record it at once with whatever instrument on whatever support he had at hand, why he immediately perceived this piece of folded cardboard found in the street as fodder for his art. And when he was starting from scratch, as he did more often than one might think, he did not know why it felt absolutely necessary for him to trim, by just one degree, the radius of an ample, generous curve with a ten-foot span. He had no control over the spot, but he had full confidence in his visual radar, in the exactitude of what his radar let him see. As anyone who ever watched him install an exhibition could testify, he had what we could call “perfect visual pitch”: He could eyeball in a split second the slightest discrepancy between what he had meticulously planned and what impatient art handlers or curators had made of his instructions.

Ellsworth often remarked that his visual accuracy was enhanced early on by his bird-watching in the New Jersey countryside (he alluded to it again this past December, marveling at photographs of a colorful painted bunting that had made a rare appearance in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park). And indeed, the skills required for bird-watching include an attention not only to the bird but to everything around it, to the ground as much as to the figure. Visiting an exhibition with Ellsworth was a lesson in perception: He was always pointing to details one would not otherwise notice, to interstitial spaces between figures, or to the juxtaposition of two color planes in a marginal area of a canvas. He would then inevitably relate those discoveries to his own work, past or recent. I vividly remember a visit to an exhibition of van Gogh’s portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, during which he kept signaling shapes or color chords in the Dutch painter’s works and noting how much they recalled some of his own—to the point that I felt compelled to joke that if one could be sure of anything, it was that van Gogh had not copied him.

But if Ellsworth’s visual proficiency allowed him to discern hidden similarities, it was even more attuned toward detecting minute differences—as I found out many times when, having compared two of his works that seemed to me very close morphologically, I was gently rebuked for not having identified their essential dissimilarity. God, for him, was indeed in the details.

I was fortunate to be able to discuss with Ellsworth, at great length, the genesis of many of his works. He was particularly voluble when speaking of his French years, in part, perhaps, because there were things he did not need to spell out with a French native, but above all because he knew how important his stay in France at the beginning of his career had been in his formation—this is where and when he had discovered and developed the noncompositional strategies (what I have classified as chance, the transfer, grid, monochrome, and silhouette) that would sustain his life’s work. He bore no grudge against the French for not having been any faster than the Americans in welcoming his work; and he enjoyed, late in life, the belated accolades he received from overseas. The only reproach he kept making against my compatriots concerned vichyssoise, the cold soup of leeks, potatoes, and crème fraîche, which he was convinced of having invented. I don’t think I managed to persuade him to the contrary.

This was the least of Ellsworth’s extremely strong core beliefs. He stuck to his guns all his life, never belonging to any group, never compromising, always proud of his singularity. Despite the experience of a certain solitude that this implies, he had many friends. And he was a generous friend, whom I’ll miss dearly.

Yve-Alain Bois is professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and is the author of the Ellsworth Kelly catalogue raisonné.