News Retrospective

Retrospective: Ellsworth Kelly’s Fantastic Plastic Language

And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago


Ellen Axon Wilson, Untitled (View of the Griswold House Back Porch,) undated, oil on artist's board. COURTESY THE FLORENCE GRISWOLD MUSEUM.

Ellen Axon Wilson, Untitled (View of the Griswold House Back Porch), undated, oil on artist’s board.


The crowding of a local art Gallery … with throngs of curious visitors, attracted, without doubt, by the advertising of the fact that in an exhibition of women artists held there, which ordinarily, and in past years has received only moderate attention, and resulted in few sales–some landscapes by the wife of the President of these United States [Ellen Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson] were displayed and for sale–is convincing evidence of what fashion and curiosity spell in the matter of art interest, and consequent commercial success, in this country.

“Art As a Fashion,” November 29, 1913


Following the exhibition of paintings West of the Mississippi, the Whitney Museum this week opens its doors to the annual pageant of contemporary American painting….Despite the preponderant representations of the East, doubtless because of it, the exhibition supplies an admirable cross section of a decidedly heterogeneous lot of current artistic trends. The search for new subject matter, which has been a constant stimulus to American art since the rebellion of “The Eight,” otherwise known as the “Ashcan School,” is evident everywhere among these paintings.

“The Whitney Hardy Perennial,” by Martha Davidson, November 1938


Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue Green, 1963, oil on canvas.  COURTESY THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART SAN DIEGO.

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue Green, 1963, oil on canvas.


Never more than in the past few years have repackaged esthetic formulas been promoted into new name brands. This prestidigitation—it has been called “instant art history”–depends on the hand of the artist being quicker than the eye of the audience, and what it creates is not so much the history as the para-history of art, properly the domain of the cultural historian….

In the context of this renewed preoccupation with novelty, the integrity of Ellsworth Kelly is impressive. He has gone quietly about “being himself.” The plastic language he has developed as his proper vehicle states its debts so candidly as to preclude the art-critical syndrome of identifying “sources” and to direct attention immediately to the more subtle personal aspects of the style.

Ellsworth Kelly: The big form,” by William Rubin, November 1963


Today, from the private galleries to the auction houses, the audience for contemporary art is growing, along with the scope of the works it is buying. Eight years ago, when the Whitney Museum of American Art bought Jasper Johns’ Three Flags (1958) for $1 million, that figure was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Current prices for similar pieces are three to four times as much, and the market for these works is still “basically the same old club, dominated by a relatively small group of serious collectors,” roughly 30 in number, according to Jeffrey Deitch, a New York art adviser. Last May at Christie’s, New York, Deitch bought Johns’ Diver (1962) for a client for $4.18 million.

“Red-Hot Goes Blue Chip,” by Andrew Decker, November 1988


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