To reflect on the legacy of American abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly, who died on Dec. 27, we take a look back on Linda Nochlin's "Kelly: Making Abstraction Anew," published on the occasion of his Guggenheim Museum retrospective (Oct. 15, 1996-Jan. 15, 1997), in our March 1997 issue. —Eds.
At first sight, Ellsworth Kelly's show at the Guggenheim Museum was literally breathtaking. No, not literally: figuratively breathtaking. Literally, it was breath-giving. It enhanced inhaling and exhaling. Kelly's work at its best brings on an expanded breathing, a kind of inward "ahhhh," as it and I, the viewer, spread our wings and our lungs. These exacerbated reds, these bluer than true blues, these expansive, unnameable shapes remind me that the Greek word pneuma means both breath and spirit. Breathing is the essence of these works, but breathing as expansion, not as effort: they never bring on puffing or panting, even going up the ramp of the Guggenheim, but instead induce an exaltation of lungs and spirit.
The Guggenheim Museum's upward exhibition trajectory transformed the artist's career into a kind of allegory of ascent, a progression from small to large, from multiple to bipartite to single, from complex to simple. But Kelly's work does not merely present an inevitable unfolding, from the smaller works of the early '50s, whether grids, checkerboards or freer and more surprising patterns, to the stark polyptychs of the later '50s and early '60s, to the large, bold bichromatic works of the '70s, to the monochrome panels and plinths that mark his latest inventions; rather, it is the diversity and surprisingness of his achievement that is striking. The sense of a seemingly "inevitable" development always comes after the fact: it could have been otherwise, and sometimes was.1
Kelly's later work may look increasingly purified, even reductive, at first inspection, and indeed, the exhibition stressed this reading; but if one deviated from that main highway of ascension the Guggenheim thrust upon the viewer and strayed to the byways, as it were, one was rewarded by a sense of the variety of Kelly's career for he is not just a painter of large-scale panels in oil on canvas, but a draftsman, a sculptor, a collagist, a printmaker and a photographer of major achievement. His work, far from being constricted, is multiple: each medium elicits another, and often opposing, aspect of his surprisingly mobile talent. And in each realm, his work responds to the particular qualities he decides, consciously or not, the genre calls forth. His photography is not, as some critics have maintained, simply a rediscovery of his abstractions in nature. His photography is not abstract, nor is its iconography that of the natural world; rather, composed of selected elements of the manmade environment that are almost indecipherable at first glance, Kelly's black-and-white photographs combine an austere, reductive composition with richness of perceptual detail. Some of the images derive their impact from carefully controlled references to qualities of the ordinary snapshot: the snapshot's fortuitous relationships or inconsequentiality, for instance. The small black-and-white dog revealing its behind next to a pile of unevenly stacked bricks in Meschers #1 of 1950, or the almost indiscernible writing marking the specificity of Opening to a Cellar (1977), or the wild gesticulation of ruined wires growing out of broken concrete in Shelled Bunker, Meschers #7, 1950: these elements are all to some degree derived from a snapshot esthetic, irregularities given esthetic shapeliness or overtones of menace or humor by Kelly's choice of vantage point and the controlled nuances of black, gray and white.
Kelly's is an oeuvre of decided complexity, both in terms of its individual history and in terms of its problematic relation to the recent and more distant past of abstract art. Earlier European abstraction's theoretical engagement with the logical polarities of chance and determination—Arp versus de Stijl—seems to be reenacted in Kelly's Colors for a Large Wall (1951). An important early work, Colors repays concentrated attention, and even a certain amount of activity on the part of the viewer. I must admit that I attempted to chart the permutations of this work, diagramming the 64 square panels that make up the 96-by-96 inch totality—brown, white, violet, white, black, orange, white, blue-green across; brown, white, black, red-orange, white, green, white, black down—looking for some sort of hidden system, some clue as to why Kelly arrived at this sequence of colors and not another, despite the fact that the sequences of these colored squares are said to be based purely on chance. But then, what is chance based on? The notion that there is a law of chance begs the question.
Historically, the principle of chance, the liberating power of the aleatory, in its connection with the unconscious, has played a major role in 20th-century avant-garde practice. Through the influence of Jean Arp, whom Kelly met in Paris in 1950, it played an important part in Kelly's early practice. For Arp, chance had serious if mysterious causes and profound consequences: "The `law of chance,' Arp stated, "which embraces all laws and is unfathomable like the first cause from which all life arises, can only be experienced through complete devotion to the unconscious. I maintained that anyone who followed this law was creating pure life."2 Kelly's view of the role played by chance in his art was considerably less exalted: "Making paintings according to the principles of chance was a way to remove my own personality. I want to eliminate the 'I made this' from my work," he once said.3 A strategy of depersonalization deployed in the creation of a recognizably unique style: this is one of the paradoxes that engaged Kelly over the years.
Kelly's work has been vitalized by contradiction from the time of the artist's earliest engagement with abstraction in Paris. At the time, after World War II, in works like the "La Combe" series of 1950-51 or Meschers of 1951, he explored the possibility of an abstraction that was neither directly expressive, ostensibly "subjective," an apparent index of emotion, like that of the Abstract Expressionists, nor, like more traditional and European schools, geometric, coloristically reduced to the primaries, or based on an a priori system. Later, it seemed to be the varied ways he dealt with a whole range of contradictions that made, and continues to make, a Kelly work into the uniquely strange entity it so often is, at once deeply satisfying and disconcerting: as though equilibrium were just barely achieved and momentarily held, like that of the ballerina on pointe, and might—and for moments even does—turn into something much more unstable.
Take, for example, the tensions implicit in the relation of curve to radius in a work like Blue Curve III (1972), one of a series of Curves. What is the relation of this curve—a segment of a large circle—to the "radii" implied by the work's straight edges—straight lines which are too short to reach the center of the circle the curve would make if completed? It is precisely this "inconsistency" between length of radius and curve of arc which accounts for the sense of soar and sweep in those Curves where the discrepancy is most exaggerated, and lifts them from the realm of geometry to that of imaginative flight, Maflame's l'azur meeting the Concorde on the walls of the Guggenheim.
In many cases, it is the viewer who activates the tensions latent in a particular work or group of works; it is often the spectator's changing position that makes the later Panels and Curves spring provocatively to life. Step to the left, and the left margin of a Curve lengthens out with you; step to the right and you could swear that the right edge is longer. I performed a solemn and repetitive clog dance—left, left, left; right, right, right—in front of several of these impervious and unnerving objects, convinced that the edges were, in fact, uneven in length, despite the measurements given in the catalogue and their—almost—obvious evenness when you stop shuffling and plant yourself exactly "in front" of them. (But then, because of the building, they were so often hung at odd angles.)
The constant resort to the quirky awkwardness of the irregular quadrilateral—a form which calls to mind the architectonic stability of the rectangle but fails to maintain that trust and falls short of the more dynamic equilibrium of the parallelogram, too—is another of Kelly's strategies for undermining the pull of the "geometric unconscious." A series of differently colored quadrilaterals, disharmonized against a wall, can make one jittery indeed. The same might be said of the combination of the curve with the straight edge in four-sided figures: works like Green Panel with Curve or Yellow Panel with Curve of 1992 strain both visual and haptic response with their apparent simplicity and their refusal to conform to the stable norms of more conventional geometric figures.
Kelly's sculpture transfers these contradictions from two dimensions to three, from wall to space. Look at these slender wood or metal totems rising from the museum floor: how uncannily they maintain their verticality, how inscrutably they are anchored to the ground from which they rise. What holds them down, one wonders, what keeps them from soaring off into space or tipping over? The guard finally tells us that they are anchored to the marble floor of the Guggenheim by invisible pins. Others are buttressed by horizontal steel elements under the pavement. Or consider the antithesis between horizontal and vertical, each of which creates a different sort of spatial and gravitational expectation, in White Angle (1966). Here too, appearances are deceptive: what looks like a short-seated, high-backed beach chair when seen from a point directly in front of it—or in the foreshortened photograph in the exhibition catalogue—reveals, when viewed in profile, that it is actually constructed of two exactly equal lengths of painted aluminum.
Yet it is perhaps the way that Kelly's work has embodied and developed a bold and ever-challenging semantics of color that marks it as a major contribution to modern visual practice. "Color," says Jacqueline Lichtenstein in her wonderfully eloquent study of the subject in the age of French classicism, "bears a striking resemblance to the god of negative theology that the categories of rationality can never adequately apprehend and of which the only way to speak is to say nothing."4 Difficult though it may be to talk about color—harder, for instance, than to discuss iconography or composition—Kelly's color, within the framework of the artist's opened-out, edgy, sometimes metamorphic geometry, leads to intensive speculation, although certainly not of a traditional philosophical sort; to a series of observations, which, if put in a certain order, might stand in for speculative analysis. Kelly's color, while often unitary, never looks uncomplicated: it is, to begin with, usually a little "off," painstakingly mixed by the artist, deviating both from the simplified verities of the primaries and his more recent insistence on full saturation. Some of the hues look tertiary: yellow-yellow green or red-red orange. This is far from the mature Mondrian's simplified color world and closer to Gauguin's quirky and evocative palette. Perhaps I should explain that I come to Kelly as a pilgrim from the field of 19th-century French modernism. I see him from a vantage point in a past with its own problematics of form and color, a view that is both different and more distant than that of many critics of contemporary art. It is not that I want to relate him to this past in terms of the specific influence of 19th-century artists. As far as I can see, Kelly's work is not directly related to such a precedent; far too much has intervened. But even so, it interests me to look at his work through the prism of that particular Parisian past, especially since Paris meant so much to Kelly in his younger days; for I cannot help but see Kelly as a major incarnation of the 19th-century vanguard's unpredictable future.
I thought of Degas initially when I saw the Kelly retrospective, and I continued to think of Degas as I progressed through it. To be precise, it was Degas's fans I thought of first: both the actual fans that he, like many other Impressionists, designed—shaped canvases, watercolor on silk mounted on cardboard—and the numerous fan shapes that occur within his paintings. One might accuse Degas of being a premature abstractionist. So often, one feels the unconscious desire for an art of pure form, based on geometry and the interrelationships of shape lurking at the heart of the modern world of his imagery. These proto-abstract shapes to which Degas was repeatedly attracted are seldom "natural" or "nature derived," but almost invariably are lifted from the realm of made objects. I refer to the precise abstract shapes provided by fans and tutus: more specifically, the way a fan—a flat, dark, arc-topped form obstructing the surface of the picture plane—echoes, in more emphatic form, the feathery fan shapes of the tutus on the distant stage. Or the mysterious but geometrically precise and colorful shape marking the back wall in the portrait of the critic, Diego Martelli. Or the wedge-shaped fan of empty space separating opposing boys and girls in the Spartan Youth. (But lo and behold! Kelly noticed that, too. It may, of course, be mere coincidence, but Degas's Spartan Youth is one of the works he remade with abstract collage elements—torn red and white fan shapes—in his series of altered postcards.)
Yet, as is so often the case, the impact was reciprocal: Kelly made me think of Degas differently, as well. It was not Degas's physiognomic realism, nor his working from life, but his heightened sense of shape that came to mind. "Kelly aime les formes, it les savoure amoureusement," says Yve-Alain Bois, Kelly's most astute analyst.5 Degas, too, loved forms; like Kelly, he "savored them lovingly." But in Degas's time, form had to be the form-of-things, form tied to recognizable objects. So Degas talked about "seeing things new, as they had never been seen before," a way of seeing which could transform things into pure shapes as far as possible, within the historically conceivable framework of representational composition. Think of the way Degas establishes a relationship between the curve of a fan in the foreground and the opposing curve of a tutu on the stage below by framing his composition from an unexpected angle. Or the way he plays with the exaggerated rondure of his plump portrait subject, Diego Martelli, and the unidentifiable multicolored arc; or the actual fans Degas created, with their echoing curves or tendrils of tiny dancers marking the surface.6 Seen in the light of Kelly, I realized that it was really a kind of premature ostranenie that Degas engaged in: a process of denaturalization of perception, "highlighting an ignored aspect of the sensible world ... isolating it from its context, depriving it of its context, or its causal explanation." These words are used by Bois to talk about Kelly at an early stage of his career, but they could easily work for Degas as well.7
Degas, like Kelly, makes his intentions explicit. He is setting out, deliberately, to see things differently, from new angles. He notes his intentions, in words as well as images, in the revealing pages of his various notebooks, storehouses of information and inspiration he kept during most of his career as an artist. "Studio projects//Make tiers of seats (gradins) all around the room/ to get used to drawing things from above and below/ Let things be painted only as seen in a mirror to get used to hatred of trompe l'oeil For a portrait, make [the sitter] pose on the main floor and make yourself work on the first [floor] . . ." or "On the evening/ infinite subjects/ in the cafés different values of the /globes [round glass lamps] reflected in the mirrors."8 On one sheet is a rapid sketch of the Pantheon seen from a low vantage point. Below it, Degas has noted: "No one has ever done monuments or houses from below, from underneath, up close, the way we see them passing by on the streets."9
Said Kelly, reminiscing about a childhood experience: "I remember that when I was about ten or twelve years old I was ill and fainted. And when I came to, my head was upside down. I looked at the room upside down, and for a brief moment I couldn't understand anything until my mind realized that I was upside down and I righted myself. But for the moment that I didn't know where I was, it was fascinating . . . . "10 Or at another time he stated: "I automatically distance the idea of what I'm looking at. I play with what I see, forget what it is, which color it is, perceive the changes through my shifting positions...."11
I am not, of course, implying that Kelly is doing the same thing as Degas: far from it. In any case, what Kelly ultimately, in the late '40s and early '50s, was "making strange" was not the conventional vision of 19th-century academicism nor merely the material of urban experience, but the conventional givens of 20th-century abstraction: for Kelly in Paris in the 1950s, it was abstract art that had to be seen anew. But it is also true, for Kelly, that the path to a new abstraction lay in part, and at least for a while, in a radical revision of the visual material of the urban milieu: its shadows, its visual echoes, its unexpected glimpses of the ordinary which lent themselves to the production of the unexpectedly almost-abstract, a hovering between pure abstraction and older regimes of visuality, In a seemingly abstract series of works like La Cambe I, II and III (1950-51), each image is, in fact, a very precise transcription of the shadows cast on a stairway by a metal railing at a specific time of day. Yet without previous knowledge of this fact, one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that this is an indexical rather than an invented image.12
Kelly's work assumes an amplified meaning within the context of the history of the role of color in the 19th and 20th centuries. From being the once despised Other of drawing in the history of Western art—lofty disegno's "feminine" subordinate—color, in the advanced art of the 19th century, gradually became the predominant element of pictorial construction in the theory and practice of such artists as Seurat, Gauguin, van Gogh and the Nabis, assuming both the uppermost position in creative invention and more and more independence of form and expression.13 On the one hand there was the effort, connected to the experimental science of the time, to establish color as a rational system, measurable, repeatable in its effects, masculinized by its relationship to theoretical physics and its association with the ever-expanding authority of the discourses of the natural sciences. Such discourses inform both the theory and the practice of Seurat, his inspirers and his followers. The very name Seurat chose for his movement—Chromoluminarism—provides insight into its scientific aims and sources.14
On the other hand, Symbolist painters like Gauguin, van Gogh and the Nabis, at the end of the century, considered color as the basis of their expressive signifying practice: "musical," nonlinguistic, evocative, capable of transmitting meaning and feeling directly, without the support of narrative. "It is a musical poem, it needs no libretto," declared Gauguin (citing Mallarme) of his "unfathomable enigma" (his own words), Where Do We Come From, Who Are We, Where Are We Going of 1897, in his reply to an unfavorable review by Andre Fontainas.15 Van Gogh's letters are often devoted to explicating the specific expressive implications of the choice of colors and construction of color relationships in his pictures."16 Whistler's "Symphonies" rely heavily on a musical analogy for their evocative powers. By the end of the 19th century, it was clear that color was the dominant force in advanced artistic creation, in the work of the Post-Impressionists and the Nabis, and later in the canvases of the Fauves and Die Briicke in Germany, as well as in the art of Matisse.
Since the fate of the highest and the most ambitious abstraction in modern times is so powerfully linked to color, it is hard to remember that color, like Woman, who so effectively supplied its theoretical tropes, was considered something of a whore in the not-too-distant past. "Flattery, cosmetics, artifice, appearance . . . all the terms of this metaphorical chain linking the critique of painting, of sophistry, and of rhetoric, also qualify the effects of color as effects of seduction; they are the effects of illusion and pleasure," declares Jacqueline Lichtenstein, referring to French classical theory.17 Prophets of abstraction, like the Nabi Maurice Denis, seemed excessively bold when they proclaimed the primacy of color in the creative process at the end of the 19th century: "Remember that a painting—before it is a battle-horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors."18 If, from one point of view, the triumph of color in modern abstraction may be considered the very token of art's liberation from illusionism and ultimately from the constrictions of representation itself,19 at the same time, color and the triumph of color has always made some members of the art world uneasy. Think of the mixed reactions in our own time to the cleaning of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, and to the revelation that the greatest artist of the 16th century had in fact emphasized bright, sensuous, even dazzling color in the construction of his masterpiece; many were shocked that his monumental form wasn't just a question of rational drawing and "masculine" sculptural values after all.
The idea that an art of pure color could signify independently of subject matter made many art-lovers decidedly unhappy at the fin de siecle, giving rise to both rage and ridicule, as it still does, in fact, today. Even before there was an actual abstract art, an art engaged with color and shape alone, the fumistes of Montmartre were having their fun in the 1880s and '90s at the expense of the advanced colorists of their time. The fumiste monochromes were preserved in a caricatural publication titled Album Primo-Avrilesque (April Fool-ish Album) of 1897 [see A.i.A., Feb. '97]. Here, a pure black canvas was denominated Battle of Negroes in a Cellar During the Night; a red painting, Harvest of Tomatoes by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea; and an all-white one (shades of Robert Ryman!), First Communion of Anemic Young Girls During a Snow Storm.20 The insistence, in these parodic monochromes of the Chat Noir group, that all nonobjective painting must necessarily conceal an underlying narrative which constitutes its meaning, finds its echo in cer¬tain critical interpretations today which are equally reluctant to admit that an abstract art like Kandinsky's or Mondrian's or Rothko's can signify without the presence of tiny figures or overpainted iconography to supply "meaning." Such a criticism, grounded in the erroneous notion that mean¬ing in visual art must always be grounded in a recognizable iconography, no matter how reduced or occluded—or even invented—marks the more naively empirical branch of art-historical discourse and prevents the radically nonobjective work of an artist like Kelly from being discussed in more relevant and enlightening terms.
Whether or not Kelly has ever consciously thought of the traditional "color versus drawing" issue in relation to his own practice, it almost inevitably comes to mind in situating his drawings within his oeuvre as a whole. That is to say, the pen-and-ink work raises the classic disegno vs. colore opposition again within the polarities of his own production, in the way the artist pulls the two apart and then accords drawing—reduced, relatively small-scaled, sensuous, clearly dependent upon the specificities of the visual object the "minor" but seductive position previously accorded color in classic Western art theory. In short, Kelly stands the time-honored opposition between "masculine" drawing versus "feminine" painting on its head. Indeed, Kelly's ink drawings, Ingres-like in their insistence on contour as "the probity of art" (to borrow a favorite phrase from the 19th-century master) and intuitive in their sensibility, stretch a poignant thread of reality around a visible fragment of the natural world: a leaf, a flower, a blade of grass. Always, the drawings stand for particularity, the quivery warp and woof of representation, an experience that demands private delectation rather than public, or semipublic response.
Although the drawings seem to mark the most private, intimate pole of Kelly's oeuvre, in other cases it is difficult to designate the boundaries between the public and the private in Kelly's art. Aside from his recent public commissions, which I intend to deal with in greater detail below, many of his pieces have a public life of sorts, ranging from the mysterious sense of presence his metal steles confer on the landscape of upper New York State on his home turf, to the way a whole series of large arcs and panels can take over the space of the museum or its threshold when they become floor pieces. The Kelly floor piece has a tendency to spread out, to impede spatial access while inviting attention to its shape and color and relation to the ground—a relationship which at once announces itself as very different from the relationship of colored plane to wall: in effect, more public insofar as it is more intrusive than even the most radical of wall pieces, and yet, at the same time, more passive, more "victimlike" or even abject, in that it spreads itself out on the ground at our feet. (See, for example, Project for the Westidlisches Landesmuseum, Kunstverein, Miinster, 1992; or Black Curve, seen in the exhibition "Schwerelos" at the Grosse Orangerie, Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, 1991; or Yellow Curve, an installation at Portikus, Frankfwt, 1990.) These floor pieces also are heightened instances of a quality that characterizes many of Kelly's best works: they both ignore and take over the "background" (or, as in this case, the "base") in the same way that they both affirm and deny the laws of gravity and the "rules" of geometry. They conceal something at once playful and more radically disconcerting in their ample two- or three-dimensionality.
Kelly's public commissions have received relatively little critical attention as a distinct sector of his oeuvre; they are usually simply assimilated to his other works of the same period. Yet the sharp thrust of assertive color and deliberate shape into the anarchic indeterminacy of contemporary public space, the focusing of visual attention amid the drift and dullness of what one might call daily public feeling, makes Kelly's monuments into active, if relatively unobtrusive, forces: they serve to fix the gaze, however momentarily, on the here and now, on the contradictions inherent in the visual miasma of our quotidian existence. Among the most striking of Kelly's public commissions is his Houston Triptych of 1982, three bronze panels mounted on an exterior wall of the Museum of Fine Arts, their forceful shapes underlined by the brilliant shadow of the environment, shapes at once purely abstract yet playfully reminiscent of Matisse's "Backs" series in the museum's collection.21 Also multipartite, but freestanding, is his sculpture that unites two plazas in Barcelona, featuring two grand-scale totems, one of them 50 feet tall. While fulfilling their public function of rehabilitation and unification of the public spaces of that city, they might at the same time be considered a laconic homage to Antoni Gaudi, whose fragmented tile work and soaring architectural fantasy Kelly admired, and to which his austere stainless-steel totems offer such a striking contrast.22 And perhaps most poignant and restrained of all is the two-part Memorial he created for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1993 [see A.iA., Nov. '93]. In Memorial, a spreading white curve of fiberglass faces a triptych of three white wood panels, the lightness and immateriality of the former responding to the physical implacability of the triptych, the whiteness of both parts referring to loss and memory: the always-blank page of history that no transcendence can ever inscribe, no wingspread, however generously conceived, can ever encompass.
Two of Kelly's most interesting public projects are just now taking shape: the first of them, a two-part piece, Red and Black, has recently been installed in the mind-bogglingly complex Tokyo International Forum, "a vast theater and exhibition complex at the very core of Tokyo" designed by the architect Rafael Vifioly.23 Here, the two 10-by-20-foot panels in painted aluminum, juxtaposed one above the other in the vast entryway to one of the four theaters sited in the Forum, set up a module of human scale and emotional concentration within a vast, multifunctional, multi-leveled, visually and psychically elusive urban space.24
Finally, one of Kelly's most ambitious public projects is the series of panels he has constructed in conjunction with Henry Cobb, architect of Boston's new federal courthouse. This project includes nine panels in the dominating central rotunda complemented by 12 panels, all in painted aluminum, on the two end walls. At the center of the rotunda, Kelly has strategically placed an unobtrusive yet significant black rectangle: black signifies negation in our culture, and Kelly once half-jokingly suggested to one of the distinguished judges involved in the project that the color black evoked the judicial presence. I, however, have a different interpretation of the black panel at the heart of the hall of justice: "What is really important is that the criminal is at the very heart of the law," Andre Breton once said, "It's obvious: the law could not exist without the criminal."25 Perhaps Kelly's black panel exists to remind us, simply by being where it is, of the contradictions that lie not merely at the heart of our visual apprehensions, but, by analogy, in our institutional practices and their theoretical grounding as well. As usual, such an interpretation is not "built in" to the work in question: we have to work, or free associate, in order to let it enter our initial perceptions of the visual thing in itself.