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In late December 2015, American abstract master Ellsworth Kelly passed away at the age of 92. A month and a half before his death, Kelly had said to The Guardian that he “want[ed] to live another 15 years.” This zest for life came from his unwavering commitment to art making. In a career that spanned almost seven decades, Kelly produced over 1150 paintings, reliefs, sculptures, and large-scale commissions—works of bold shape and color that reveal his distinctive approach to abstraction inspired by visual experience. He also left behind numerous drawings, collages, and sketchbooks that document a wealth of ideas, some of which he realized and many he never had the time to create. In 1950 he wrote to his new friend, the composer John Cage: “The problem is the new ideas which are marching so quickly—I have hardly time to finish up old things” (193). Sixty-five years later, Kelly felt the same way at 92.
Although he looked forward, eager to create his next new painting, relief, or sculpture, planning in advance what specific size it should be as well as its color and shape—he was not an artist who improvised—Kelly also looked back upon his past, sometimes creating works from ideas drafted many years before. As leading Kelly scholar Yve-Alain Bois argues in his introduction to this elucidating and tremendously exhaustive first volume of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, Kelly’s particular practice of retrieving past ideas was rather unusual: “it might even be unique. Many artists have returned to works of their youth, for all kinds of reasons, but one is hard put to find another painter who, like Kelly, can do so without ever succumbing to the temptation of editing” (10). The only adjustments that the artist would make, as Bois clarifies, were decisions about scale and medium. In Kelly’s first major statement from 1973, he explained how he found his inspirations “already made” in the empirical world: “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. The subject was there already made” (11). Such would be the case for his method of transforming an earlier drawing or collage into a completed work: Kelly would create it “exactly as it was, with nothing added.”
Another trait singular to the artist was his tireless commitment to maintaining his own archives. Indeed, Kelly served as his best historian and archivist, keeping a lifetime of letters, postcards, calendars, notebooks, and other ephemera—items he devotedly transported from studio to studio until he settled in Spencertown in upstate New York in 1970. For this reason, Kelly’s studio and archives (overseen by the artist’s longtime partner and husband, the photographer Jack Shear, who serves as the executive director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation), allowed Bois to unearth new discoveries and trace the minutiae integral to producing a successful catalogue raisonné. To this endeavor, Bois has brought his exacting standards of scholarship and perspicacity. The generous access he was given to the archives, as well as to the artist himself for many years, provided Bois with extensive research and biographical information for the 141 entries of this first volume, spanning Kelly’s youth to his student years in Boston and then his truly formative years in France, where he lived from 1948–54. (In the coming years Bois will author several more volumes examining the rest of the artist’s prolific output.)
In fall 1948, Kelly moved to Paris on the GI Bill. He spent hours in the Louvre and smaller museums such as the Musée Guimet and the Musée de Cluny. By bike and bus, he visited medieval churches outside of Paris, while also keeping abreast of modern architecture, such as traveling south to see Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation still being completed. Inspired by medieval polyptychs as well as Dada and Surrealism, Kelly addressed his growing resistance to the tradition of easel painting in which he had been trained (evidenced by the thirty-nine extant representational paintings from his Boston years, 1946–48). He quickly developed a new type of abstraction using the format of the multipanel along with strategies of chance, exemplified in notable paintings such as Cité (1951) and Colors for a Large Wall (1951), works that predated similar aesthetic approaches made by 1960s practitioners of Op Art and Minimalism. Such formal likenesses observed between Kelly’s early 1950s work and those made by his 1960s contemporaries derived from different objectives and contexts. Yet, because of these empirical similarities, most commentators during the 1960s and for decades afterward wrongly classified Kelly as a follower of Minimalism, thus bypassing a thorough grasp of the artist’s earlier innovations in abstraction.
A corrective finally came in 1992, when the Jeu du Paume in Paris mounted the first exhibition focused on the artist’s French period, a presentation that highlighted the long delay in the critical appreciation of Kelly’s contribution to postwar abstraction. The accompanying catalogue, Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948–1954 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1992), featured a seminal essay by Bois, the first treatise to analyze what indeed Kelly had meant in his 1973 statement when he explained, “there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there already made.” Bois identified the various non-compositional strategies that Kelly employed in his French works, defining for the first time the concept of the “transfer,” a term the scholar coined to describe the artist’s indexical transcription and thus noncompositional method for making works inspired by “already made” shapes he saw in the world. Bois examined the other means by which Kelly resisted composition, such as Kelly’s use of chance, an approach far removed from the Minimalist system.
After the publication of this essay, a close working relationship and friendship began to form between Kelly and Bois, allowing the scholar to continue honing his analysis of the artist’s goals and methods. As he summarizes in his catalogue raisonné introduction, Kelly’s “quest . . . to avoid composition” during his years in France arose from a couple of factors: his “search for impersonality” that derived from the artist’s deep interest in Romanesque architecture and his understanding that such work was produced by anonymous craftsmen; and the pressure of working in postwar Paris under the shadow of that great inventive Spaniard—Pablo Picasso. Bois explains: “If you started out by erasing yourself, your personality, your genius, and so on, if you started out by pretending you were not there, nobody would be able to come and say that Picasso did it better. If there was one thing Picasso did not know how to do, it was how to erase himself, how not to invent, how not to compose” (11).
Bois also remarks upon the fast pace and diversity of ideas that emerged during Kelly’s French period, as well as the artist’s youthful unawareness of the sophisticated methods he was devising at the time. He notes how Kelly no sooner found a solution for a formal problem he was facing before a new path of investigation opened up. Thus, as Bois explains, in order to provide the public with the relevant information needed for a true appreciation of Kelly’s art, he chose not to follow the standard catalogue raisonné format of a lengthy introduction (sometimes divided into separate essays or chapters) and brief commentary provided in individual entries. Instead, he opted for the reverse: a concise introduction and lengthy entries filled with detailed footnotes. Most entries focus on single works, while some address a small grouping of related works.
What these extensive entries, or rather essays, reveal are the originality and breadth of Kelly’s abstract vision and the various strategies he employed to achieve his goals. In these essays, which can function as stand-alone texts, Bois knits together the art-historical detective work required for such a study, interweaving the origins of individual artworks, biographical facts, notable first critical responses, significant exhibitions, specific remarks by past commentators, as well as Bois’s own insights. Provisional titles Kelly had used at earlier exhibitions are also documented, including conservation notes when applicable. Accompanying these essays of varying lengths—the longest one spans more than eight pages, and not surprisingly covers Kelly’s breakthrough 1949 work, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris—are well-chosen comparative images illustrating preparatory drawings, sketchbook pages, letters, archival photographs, artworks that had inspired Kelly, and other supplementary material, many of which have never been published before. New information and illustrations are also featured in a ten-page chronology from the artist’s birth to the summer of 1954 when Kelly, weakened from an illness as well as penniless (having only sold one work in France), decided to return to New York, believing his work might be better received there, which would indeed come to pass.
While planning his departure from France, Kelly had faced the dilemma of how to transport all his works, sketchbooks, and drawings back to the United States. Before he learned that the Cunard Line would ship everything on credit, his mother had suggested that he dispose of the work he had made in France. What a turn of fate it is to imagine not having access to this seminal part of Kelly’s oeuvre to both study and admire. This first catalogue raisonné volume is rigorous testimony to the artist’s achievements and his legacy to twentieth- and twenty-first-century abstraction. It lays an extremely solid and generous foundation to understand this fertile period in Kelly’s career and will no doubt inspire new scholarship in the years to come.
Tricia Y. Paik
Florence Finch Abbott Director, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
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