Kelly's green.In 1992 I had an Ellsworth Kelly eureka! experience in Kassel, Germany, in a room, off discreetly to the side, in almost all senses apart from the rest of Documenta IX. Kelly has a reputation for being extremely exacting when it comes to the physical placement of his work - for the unimpeachable un·im·peach·a·ble
1. Difficult or impossible to impeach: an unimpeachable witness.
2. Beyond reproach; blameless: unimpeachable behavior.
3. reason that walls are in essence the grounds of his paintings. Here, in his chambre a part at the Freidricianum, the dynamically curved, eccentrically positioned, single-color canvases instantly produced what can only be described as a "ping" effect: the sensation that would ensue if one suddenly came upon an alpine meadow, bright green and full of wildflowers, after wandering for hours through grand allees dripping with Spanish moss. Viewing Kelly's work at the time, I was reminded of Ruskin's pre-Raphaelite encomium en·co·mi·um
n. pl. en·co·mi·ums or en·co·mi·a
1. Warm, glowing praise.
2. A formal expression of praise; a tribute. : that artists endeavor to look at nature as if without eyelids eyelids,
n.pl a moveable fold of thin skin over the eye. The orbicularis oculi muscle and the oculomotor nerve control the opening and closing of the eyelid. . Since then, I have been unable to see a certain sunlit shade of pastoral green without thinking of Kelly.
Kelly, of course, has always been to some extent historically apart as well. Unlike most of his American contemporaries (but along with some others, such as Jack Youngerman, who went abroad on the GI bill shortly after the war), Kelly was living in Paris during the original tidal wave of Abstract Expressionism and only experienced its daunting daunt
tr.v. daunt·ed, daunt·ing, daunts
To abate the courage of; discourage. See Synonyms at dismay.
[Middle English daunten, from Old French danter, from Latin aftermath when he returned to New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of from a six-year sojourn abroad in 1954 - the year Jasper Johns was making his first "Flags." (Kelly and Youngerman both moved to lofts on Coenties Slip, in the fish market area, virtually next door to Agnes Martin and around the corner from Johns and Robert Rauschenberg on Pearl Street.) In Kelly's case "apart" does not mean immune to the impulses of his time. In particular, he seems to have been driven almost from the start by a kind of homegrown, post-Duchampian concretism con·cret·ism
The practice of representing abstract concepts or qualities in concrete form, as in concrete poetry.
con·cretist n. : like Johns' paintings, Kelly's do not represent things but instead present themselves as things. (On a more quizzical quiz·zi·cal
1. Suggesting puzzlement; questioning.
2. Teasing; mocking: "His face wore a somewhat quizzical almost impertinent air" Lawrence Durrell. note, Kelly and Johns also share an abiding fascination for Matthias Grunewald's phantasmagorical Adj. 1. phantasmagorical - characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions; "a great concourse of phantasmagoric shadows"--J.C.Powys; "the incongruous imagery in surreal art and literature"
phantasmagoric, surreal, surrealistic Isenheim altarpiece.)
Although Kelly, too, was swept into a generational current that pulled many young painters of the mid '50s away from expressive gesture toward a more impersonal touch and transcendental regard, what he did upon returning to America was a straightforward continuation of what he had been doing abroad: distilling, into pure shape and color, whatever fragment of a thing he had observed as he had observed it - whether the essential form of a plant or flower; the angle of a window from a particular vantage at a specific time of day; the exact perspective of the art of a bridge from where he stood; or, in the case of a painting such as Toilette toi·lette
1. The act or process of dressing or grooming oneself; toilet.
2. A person's dress or style of dress.
3. A gown or costume.
[French; see toilet. , 1949, the inescapably basic shape of a Turkish toilet in a French cafe. (To this end photography was useful to him both as an exercise in its own right and as an aide memoire.) It is one of Kelly's temperamental peculiarities that, by the age of 30, he was for all purposes already fully formed as an artist. He has in any case been uniquely consistent, both stylistically and conceptually, ever since. (In this respect, as well as in that of a perennial freshness of surface, he has something in common with Roy Lichtenstein.)
In addition to Kelly's long-standing Ruskinian mission, however, there is the equally if not more important matter of what he has looked at most intensely, and of what has shaped his work within the realms of architecture and art. The artist's formative interest in Byzantine and Egyptian sculpture and Romanesque architecture, as well as an early and enduring involvement with work by many of the great European Moderns who were still alive at midcentury, cannot be overemphasized. When he lived in France, Kelly visited the studios of Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi. Arp's sublimated sub·li·mate
v. sub·li·mat·ed, sub·li·mat·ing, sub·li·mates
1. Chemistry To cause (a solid or gas) to change state without becoming a liquid.
a. naturalism, and the exquisite tension of Brancusi's soaring line surely informed Kelly's Shaker-plain botanical allusions and his tensile, streamlined sculptures. A connection between Matisse's late cutouts and Kelly's brilliant, single-color shaped canvases needs no justification. In the versatile and formally ecumenical Alexander Calder - whose subtle impact on younger artists, ranging from Kelly and Youngerman to the late Keith Haring, has become increasingly apparent over the last two decades - Kelly also found a powerful supporter when he needed one.
Kelly's own effect, in turn, on subsequent generations seems to be emerging as well. The simultaneous abstraction and literalism lit·er·al·ism
1. Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine.
2. Literal portrayal; realism.
lit of his canvases finds recent parallels in the paintings of Peter Halley, Andy Spence, Philip Taaffe, and (via Robert Indiana) Christopher Wool. (Taaffe's elaborately layered surfaces may also to some degree be indebted to Kelly's early use of varied collage and tracing techniques.) His Yankee plainspokenness and his deployment (particularly during the '40s and early '50s) of found elements such as children's drawings find an echo in Donald Baechler's etiolated e·ti·o·late
v. e·ti·o·lat·ed, e·ti·o·lat·ing, e·ti·o·lates
1. Botany To cause (a plant) to develop without chlorophyll by preventing exposure to sunlight.
a. accumulations of similar stuff. And, finally, Byron Kim's randomly arranged, multipanel, skin-toned color grids are nothing if not the direct descendants of Kelly's great aleatory aleatory adj. uncertain; usually applied to insurance contracts in which payment is dependent on the occurrence of a contingent event, such as injury to the insured person in an accident or fire damage to his insured building. geometric arrangements such as his Sixty-Four Panels: Colors for a Large Wall, 1951.
"Ellsworth Kelly" is on view at the Guggenheim from 18 October to 15 January 1997, travels to LA MOCA MOCA Museum of Contemporary Art
MOCA Multimedia over Coax
MoCA Museum of Chinese in the Americas
MOCA Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance
MOCA Montezuma Castle National Monument (US National Park Service) from 16 February to 18 May 1997, and then to the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, from 12 June to 7 September 1997.
Lisa Liebmann is the author of David Salle (Rizzoli, 1994).