Ellsworth Kelly arrived in Paris in October, 1948, at the age of 25. He had trained for two years at the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn; served three years with the U.S. Army in Europe; and studied for two years with a German Expressionist painter at the Boston Museum School.
While in France, Kelly created the visual language that he has used ever since. "Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948-1955," a touring exhibition that was recently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, is the most complete presentation to date of this key time in his career.
Roughly half of the 222 drawings and collages at the Art Institute have never been shown in public before, and were selected from a much larger group of unexhibited works in the artist’s collection. The Art Institute exhibition follows two earlier retrospectives: "Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948-1954," organized by the National Gallery in 1992, and "Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective," which appeared at the Guggenheim Museum in 1996.
Kelly’s Paris drawings show him observing a new environment, analyzing and recording what he sees, and trying to decide what to do with this material. Many of his drawings resemble diary pages, while others are relics of failed experiments. Diffuse and uneven, they will interest people who already know Kelly’s mature work -- and want to learn how it came to be. To compensate for this, the Art Institute surrounds the drawing exhibition with three smaller, more accessible Kelly shows, which are described below.
In much of his Parisian work, Kelly occupies well-trodden esthetic territory. He produces a readymade, but Duchamp had done this many years before. He explores geometric abstraction, which numerous artists did after World War I. Like many other artists, he does some dumb things and succumbs to occasional distractions before he finds a personal style.
"Painting was finished for me"
On long walks through Paris, Kelly was intrigued by architectural details -- windows, walls, skylights, sidewalk grilles, chimneys -- and the patterns of light and shadow on these objects. He drew the surfaces he saw, ignoring perspective, architectural form and the history and use of the buildings.
Kelly was a realist painter when he came to Paris; he moved toward abstraction as fresh material entered his art. Because he wanted his work to transcend its origins in nature and to take on independent life, he did not acknowledge his true sources for many years. He was very upset when a visitor to one of his Paris shows recognized that his painting La Combe (1950) was inspired by sunlight falling on a staircase.
Kelly also wanted his art to be anonymous and not composed as paintings are. A breakthrough came in October of 1949 while he was visiting the Paris Museum of Modern Art. He found that the large windows between the exhibits interested him more than the works themselves. He drew a window and later recreated it in his studio as an object.
"From then on," Kelly writes, "painting as I had known it was finished for me. The new works were to be paintings/objects, unsigned, anonymous. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose."
An artist’s strategies
Replicating objects like the museum window was one strategy that Kelly used to break with the past. As his drawings demonstrate, he simplified and transformed what he saw. Chimney Patterns I (1949), for example, is a very ordinary drawing with scribbled annotations in the corners that Kelly probably made on one of his walks. In Chimney Patterns II, he isolates a few details and the words disappear. Chimney Patterns IV is an ink and gouache abstraction, which would be difficult to read if we did not have the title (added many years later) and the two drawings. Study for "Ormesson" (1950) represents the next step in the process. Starting from stonework patterns that he observed and drew, Kelly produced an abstract collage.
Chance was another strategy that gave Kelly the freedom he sought. He fiddled with mathematical systems for making art and produced masses of automatic drawings by closing his eyes and trying to draw from memory. (There are 32 of these works in the Art Institute show, but six would have been enough.) He also cut drawings, magazine pages and other materials into vertical strips, rearranged the pieces and affixed them to sheets of paper.
A frustrated Kelly described this work to his friend John Cage in September of 1950. "[My] collages are only ideas for things much larger -- things to cover walls," he wrote. "In fact all the things I’ve done I would like to see much larger. I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long -- to hang on walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures -- they should be the wall -- even better -- on the outside wall -- of large buildings."
In June of 1951, Kelly broke through to the grid. He was teaching art in an elementary school at the time. One night, he dreamed that he and his students were up on a scaffold making a large, square-paneled wall painting. Soon he produced a brushstroke drawing, cut it up into 20 squares, rearranged these as a grid, and pasted them to a paper backing. Next, he inverted this work and made a painting of the resulting image, which he called Cite.
The Art Institute shows Kelly’s original collage, which he named Brushstrokes Cut in Twenty Squares and Arranged by Chance. Today we call this work Study for "Cite." Though Kelly was to claim that Study for "Cite" was randomly created, it is clear that he intervened by making all the bars horizontal. He never really worked completely by formula or chance. Inevitably, the creator in him vanquished the academic, theoretical side of his personality. Kelly’s internal conflict -- and its happy resolution -- is an unspoken theme of this show.
To this point, Kelly had been working in black and white or with an undistinguished palette. One day in 1951, he entered a stationery shop and discovered papiers gommettes (gummed papers). These are sheets of coated paper with bright colors on one side and glue on the other. French schoolchildren use them for art projects.
Kelly saw the potential of this material at once, bought out the shop’s entire stock, and his grids exploded with color. These works, in which color and surface seem to unite, are the most exhilarating in the Art Institute exhibition. We see Kelly become the artist we know today.
Following his usual practice, Kelly experimented -- and simplified -- as he went along. Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance VII, one of the early multicolored grid works, is 39 inches by 39 inches with 1,600 colored squares. It is an impressive, if meandering work. Study for "Sixty-Four Panels: Colors for a Large Wall is much smaller -- ca. 8 by 8 in. -- and it contains just 64 squares. The artist based his painted masterpiece Colors for a Large Wall (1951) on this collage. During this time, he made many collages with fewer colors and less elaborate designs.
Line form color
In 1951 (it was a very busy year!), Kelly produced 46 ink drawings and collages, which he proposed to publish as Line Form Color, a book "having no written word." Line Form Color was to be "an alphabet of plastic pictorial elements, aiming to establish a new scale of painting, a closer contact between the artist and the wall, providing a way for painting to accompany modern architecture," he declared.
Kelly wanted to take painting off the easel and put it on building walls. Artists, who would be as faceless as those of the ancient world, would "work directly with the architect, building as the architect builds," he wrote. Kelly applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for a project grant, but was turned down. He preserved the collages and drawings until Harvard University Press offered to publish Line Form Color in conjunction with the present exhibition.
In a separate exhibition, the Art Institute shows Kelly’s original 8 by 10 inch pages for Line Form Color. All are very straightforward abstract designs (several pages are monochromatic) with no sense of a frame or reference to nature. Most of the elements of Kelly’s mature art are present -- the grid, the curve, stripes and flat color fields.
The Chicago Panels
Five paintings and two sculptures by Kelly in the Art Institute’s permanent collection are shown next to Line Form Color. These beautiful works pale in comparison to the Chicago Panels, six new painted wall sculptures that Kelly created for the rectangular inner courtyard of the Art Institute’s Rice Building, where his drawings were shown.
Kelly and James N. Wood, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, are personal friends. Visiting Chicago about ten years ago, Kelly noticed that the Rice Building’s courtyard wall was empty and Wood invited him to "design something for it." Kelly did not think that traditional paintings would work in this part of the Art Institute. The Rice Building courtyard "functions as a corridor," he said, "and there are columns. This would be a place where I could put in single panels."
Kelly supplied six monochrome paintings on canvas, which hung in the corridor for about 10 years. When he suggested that aluminum panels would be "more architectural," the Art Institute commissioned him to produce The Chicago Panels, which are now on permanent display.
The Chicago Panels are irregular rectangles and trapezoids -- some have a curved side -- roughly four feet across. Each panel is painted in a single matte color -- yellow, blue, orange, green, red and black. Frameworks behind the panels project them about three inches from the wall so they seem to float. The lighting, part natural and part artificial, creates shadows that emphasize the edges.
As the viewer walks around the Rice Building courtyard, individual panels appear and disappear between the classical columns. The colors, shapes and shadows vibrate intensely. Altogether The Chicago Panels are triumphant works of art. Kelly is said to be "very proud" of them. He ought to be!
VICTOR M. CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.