Ellsworth Kelly, Two Curves for Floor, 2011, acrylic on canvas on wood. Installation view, 2012. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

Ellsworth Kelly, Two Curves for Floor, 2011, acrylic on canvas on wood. Installation view, 2012. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, Two Curves for Floor, 2011, acrylic on canvas on wood. Installation view, 2012. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, Ellsworth Kelly has continually worked in black and white, often in parallel to making the same forms in color. Devoted exclusively to his black-and-white works, this show, subtitled “Schwarz & Weiß” (Black & White), may have seemed intended to emphasize an elimination of the artist-subject in Kelly’s work. (The curator, Ulrich Wilmes, speaks of “eschewing the subjective, emotional weight resulting from the use of color.”) Yet the exhibition left no doubt that black and white can also create a sense of subjective, psychological space; and the inclusion of seventeen of the artist’s photographs highlighted the ramifications of Kelly’s using details from nature or parts of buildings as sources for his painterly and sculptural forms.

Relying on Yve-Alain Bois’s landmark analysis of Kelly’s work, Wilmes writes in his catalogue essay that the artist’s “visual method of ‘transfer’ (and complete abstraction) is a kind of anticomposition, which exempts him from both the mimesis imperative and its opposite, the need for invention.” Although it is true that Kelly surrenders to an external generative device as far as the construction of his forms is concerned—he might use an extant shadow to determine the contour of a form, for instance, or trace the pattern of a tiled floor—and that he speaks of the subjects of his work as “already made,” in order to mark its relation to and difference from the Duchampian readymade, these photographs (whose role the artist first acknowledged in 1968) make clear that compositional and subjective choices do inform his work.

The legendary Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, 1949, which Kelly once described as his first “object,” and the painted folding screen La Combe II, 1950–51, offer excellent examples. The two works refer to very different models—the former was inspired by a window in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, while the latter has its origin in the photograph Shadows on Stairs, Villa La Combe, Meschers, 1950, taken on the Atlantic coast of France. For Window, Kelly joined together two panels and painted the top white and the bottom gray—which very clearly marks the work not as representation but as a reconstruction through paint, stretcher, and canvas. In La Combe II, meanwhile, the shadow is not simply conveyed 1:1, but rather reproduced in pieces, over nine panels. In both cases, the referent is presented diagramatically. It is important in this regard that diagrams don’t just reproduce the preexisting world (in the sense of an “already made”) but generate a new type of reality. Accordingly, rather than simply using preexisting structures, Kelly has made specific subjective formal choices—for a particular motif, for a particular detail of a larger image—that underlie his mediated reconstructions. In comparison with the act of selection in the case of the Duchampian readymade, the extent and number of choices here implies a higher degree of intentionality, arguably even allowing the artist-subject to reenter through the back door of the “already made.”

Most of all, Kelly’s pictorial sources reveal his interest in specific structures: sloping lines, roofs that manifest a trapezoidal form, the curves and lines of shadows. There is a reciprocal interplay between the formal principles that underlie such a vision of reality and his artworks themselves. Just as Kelly subjects the world to his structural lens, the structures that he discovers in the world shape his work. Rather than completely undermining the authority of the artist-subject, then, the disclosure of his sources could thus also be interpreted as showing Kelly to be an artist with a specific sensibility, his indexical snapshots of the world signaling his subjective interpretations of the physical world (although not, for example, an analysis of its social conditions).

This same structural sensitivity is, paradoxically, what allows Kelly’s reliefs so often to appear to be pushing out into space, to the extent that they create an impression of self-generated activity. In White over Black, 1963, for example, the white form that is superimposed diagonally across a square black background extends beyond the edges of the painting, almost entirely canceling out the border between “real” and pictorial space. The elegant aluminum object White Curve, 1974, seems about to break away from the wall, thanks again to its slight distance from it. In works that, conversely, claim the white wall as an integral part—Bar, 1955, for example, in which a horizontal black band pushes toward the wall out of the white field of the canvas—Kelly seems above all concerned with incorporating the architectonic context, over which his objects nevertheless ultimately triumph. In Munich this was perhaps clearest in the installation of Dark Gray Panel, 1986, a charcoal-colored trapezoid that seemed to absorb and swallow the wall that surrounded it.

In all these cases, Kelly’s rejection of painterly convention is also a redynamization of the medium. Indeed, the fact that his abstract constellations of forms show no trace of the artistic process that gave rise to them enhances the eerie impression that they possess a subjectlike power: They seem to have created themselves. The old myth of an artwork’s self-generation seemed particularly prominent in Two Curves for Floor, 2011. Spanning the floor of an entire gallery like a great black whale, this site-specific work stretched to the room’s edges as if wishing to expand beyond them. The fact that the piece was destroyed after the closing of the Munich show changed nothing about the extent to which it appeared to assert its own agency, almost forcing the viewer to evade it. If this object was emblematic of the artist’s having left behind the confined space of a traditional canvas, it also exemplified the momentum and vitality inherent in his literally expanded form of painting.

“Ellsworth Kelly: Schwarz & Weiß” is currently on view (through June 24) at the Museum Wiesbaden, Germany.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic and the publisher of Texte zur Kunst.

Translated from German by Anne Posten.