Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 29, 2000
Yve-Alain Bois Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948–1955 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 263 pp.; 185 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Paper $45.00 (1891771078)
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, Mar. 6-May 16, 1999; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Jun. 8-Aug. 15, 1999; Art Institute of Chicago, Sept. 11-Dec. 5, 1999
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, Mar. 6-May 16, 1999; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Jun. 8-Aug. 15, 1999; Art Institute of Chicago, Sept. 11-Dec. 5, 1999

Isn’t it puzzling that while people who study and write about, say, Shakespeare or Kafka call themselves literary critics, people whose work concerns Michelangelo or Matisse call themselves art historians? As someone who does call himself an art critic, and whose writing is primarily concerned with the work of artists who are or might be alive today, I find most writing—even some of the best of it—by those who call themselves art historians uncritical, precisely because it lacks the commitment to the hermeneutical encounter in the present which is the hallmark of criticism, and which is in no way contradictory to the equally demanding commitment to register the historicity of the encountered object.

There are some exceptions, of course; in particular, Yve-Alain Bois is an art historian who has worked consciously as a critic, even when writing about the art of the past. Essays like those in his book Painting as Model (MIT, 1990), especially the ones on Matisse, Polish Unism, or Barnett Newman, have been exemplary in showing how the historian’s empirical and methodological scrupulousness can be inseparable from the critic’s indispensable leap into interpretive speculation. Among currently productive artists, the ones with whom Bois seems to have the deepest affinity are Robert Ryman and Ellsworth Kelly. On the latter, Bois has previously written in the catalogue Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France (Neues,1992) and in the catalogue for a 1994-95 exhibition of new work in London and New York. Now he examines Kelly’s French years again in his densely detailed introduction to the catalogue for an exhibition that began its tour at Harvard last year.

Although Kelly has been active as an artist since his graduation in 1948 from the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and has been a respected, even revered figure on the American scene since he began exhibiting with the Betty Parsons Gallery in the late 1950s, my own reaction to his work has been characterized by a certain respectful reserve rather than any great enthusiasm. My view began to shift as recently as 1996, when the Guggenheim Museum mounted its mammoth survey of abstract art. Kelly was given what to me was a surprisingly large part in that exhibition. And the works held up. Neither in the experience of the exhibition nor in subsequent reflection did Kelly’s stature seem exaggerated. The retrospective of Kelly’s work at the same institution later that year only confirmed this—all the more so considering the disappointment caused by the New York retrospectives of certain more obviously “major” figures like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly.

Despite that, casual encounters with Kelly’s work continue to reinforce my old suspicion that his work is often attractive but without depth, at best that of the proverbial petit maître. While I hardly expect any critic or historian to adjudicate my aesthetic judgments for me, I was hoping that Yve-Alain Bois’s most recent contribution to the literature on Kelly, another examination of his fruitful and multifaceted early years in France, would give me a clue. Unfortunately for me, in this case Bois has elected to write here as a historian only and not as a critic, which is to say, he mostly assumes that the aesthetic judgments have already been made—that the value of the work and the reason for it are already clear. Treating the drawings discussed and reproduced as “a series of windows opened onto the private sphere of the studio” (17), Bois’s essay is structured as biography, however substantial and detailed its attention to Kelly’s artistic thinking, which is seen as being primarily concerned, in this period, with a resistance to composition. He shows that there are “four major non-compositional strategies used by Kelly during his French years” (17)—which Bois dubs “transfer” (basically, indexical transcription), chance, grids, and the monochrome panel—and he shows how and why Kelly arrived at these strategies for avoiding composition with its concomitant sense of authorial intention or agency. What Bois does not do, unfortunately—and it is something one would think him supremely qualified to do—is to explicate what happens in the work when this evasion or dissimulation of agency is accomplished: when it is a dialogue no longer between maker and object, but between object and viewer. And he doesn’t approach the big question: Isn’t it precisely the evasion of overt agency that constitutes the great limitation of Kelly’s work, the point where self-restraint becomes self-defeating, marking a deficiency of rhetorical exuberance or emotional generosity?

In fact, a look through this book’s reproductions does reveal substantial exuberance and generosity—a wonderfully lively visual and intellectual inquiry, in fact. But it’s not clear how much of that typically makes it into what Kelly would consider finished work, as opposed to these “drafts, or rather exercises,” as Bois calls them—where the artist may be all too rigorously pursue “the grail” of “his own effacement” (17). Perhaps I’m asking for more than a 24-page essay can accomplish. But even if Bois’s findings someday make their way into a book-length examination of Kelly’s work, this volume will remain essential for libraries on contemporary art, thanks to its 185 color reproductions—but it’s not quite the one to cure a Kelly-ambivalence like mine.