Artists Retrospective

Converting Painting into Sculpture: William Rubin on Ellsworth Kelly’s Signature Style, in 1963

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks Gallery. ©ELLSWORTH KELLY/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks Gallery.


William Rubin’s 1963 piece on Ellsworth Kelly was first published online on June 19, 2015. To mark Kelly’s death yesterday, at the age of 92, it has been republished. —The Editors

With four shows at Matthew Marks Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly is having one of the most exciting moments in his career at age 92. These shows find Kelly continuing his interest in blurring the line between painting and sculpture. His colorful and seemingly simple forms lend themselves to contemplation, and, in ARTnews’ November 1963 issue, William Rubin thought long and hard about what makes Kelly’s work so effective. Rubin, who had not yet become a curator in or director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Painting and Sculpture department, wrote about how Kelly’s work was “neither a reaction to Abstract-Expressionism nor the outcome of a dialogue with his contemporaries.” Rubin’s full article follows below.—Alex Greenberger

“Ellsworth Kelly: The big form”
By William Rubin

Leader of the so-called “Hard-Edge” school, this younger American shows consistent development towards surprisingly ambiguous goals; he exhibits this month in New York

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. The proliferation of such works is encouraged by confusion in the mind of the spectator between the genuinely new and the speciously new, between the truly original and its counterfeit. And the alacrity with which these works are taken up is, in its turn, a reaction to a century of seeing new art first derided and then canonized by history. But if all great modern art has, to some extent, looked new, it does not follow that all new-looking modern art is great, or even good.

It seems to me significant that the conscious pursuit of novelty should have entered modern painting at a time (1915–20) when the tremendous momentum built up by the movements spanning Impressionism and Cubism began to wane, and that this pursuit should have received fresh impetus in the wake of the powerful first generation of the New American Painting. From the advent of Impressionism until the First World War neither artists nor critics placed a premium on originality for its own sake. Manet had set the tone in stating that he “presumed neither to overthrow earlier painting nor make it new,” but “merely tried to be himself and not somebody else.” To such pioneers originality was a natural, though by no means inevitable, by-product of making good paintings. Only with the Dadas and Surrealists did originality—soon distinguishable from novelty—become an end in itself. “Before all else,” said Picabia, “we wanted to make something new, something that nobody had ever done before.” It was precisely with Dadaism that real esthetic invention tended to become confused with illusory originality. Since inspiration cannot be forced, since plastic creativity is a matter of genius fulfilling itself, the demand for novelty led many lesser painters into “literature,” that is, beyond the legitimate poetry of imagery organically tied to plastic structures, and into an essentially extra-esthetic iconographic activity. Illusory originality thus became dependent on an ever increasing load of marginal, often frankly literary, gimmicks and effects of a type with which the past several years have more than reacquainted us.

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Curves, 2014, painted aluminum. ©ELLSWORTH KELLY/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Curves, 2014, painted aluminum.


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. Working from flat Purist painting such as had been in vogue with the Abstraction-Creation group and the painters of the Réalités nouvelles in France, Kelly forged, during the early ‘fifties, a style manifestly his own. The process involved, as I see it, certain fundamental transformations of the inherited manner: the introduction of intense color into a starkly reserved and ascetic style, producing a peculiarly American combination of the hedonistic and the puritanical; the invention of a vocabulary of affective shapes, which, though vaguely recalling Arp’s biomorphism, are distinctly personal; the use of the frame to implement ambiguities in figure-ground relationships and facilitate a new and unusual sense of scale. Though the resultant work has affinities with the flat, simple, heraldic compositions favored by some other, and later, young American painters, Kelly’s development has been resolutely inner-directed: neither a reaction to Abstract-Expressionism nor the outcome of a dialogue with his contemporaries.

Born in Newburgh, N.Y., and now forty years old, Kelly lived in Paris from 1948 to 1954. His exhibition there in 1951 at the Galerie Arnaud comprised reliefs and paintings in a variety of formats and developing numerous compositional ideas, all of them within the framework of a predominantly rectilinear style usually called Geometrical, Purist, or Precionist. While not yet very personal, these picutres can hold their own with the best of the tradition from which they spring and are free of its optical gimmickry. None of these works is decipherably figurative, though all of them are abstractions of things seen. Kelly’s motifs have never constituted a codifiable group, or iconography—they are where he finds them: an architectural fragment, a flattened tin can, an iron gate, reflections on a river and, particularly since 1957, foliage. One day on a bus he was struck by the patterns of light and shadow falling on his notebook. He drew them hurriedly and later formed from them a cahier of black and white studies to which he still refers for ideas for paintings (Black and White, Two Panels, 1958, is a direct transposition of one of these). Most of Kelly’s favorite configurations have become so independently established in his mind that he uses them now without recalling their origins.

Since 1954–55, when he painted the earliest of his characteristic curvilinear compositions, the language of Kelly’s style has remained constant, while the vocabulary has been enlarged and refined. The years since then have added new shapes, new ways of disposing the compositional field, new formats and, recently in particular, a new reassurance in the exploitation of color. In 1954 and 1955 Kelly worked almost entirely in black and white, no doubt considering the complication of color an impediment to the focusing of his style. When he subsequently introduced color, it was only in the context of a two-color picture, where the articulation was still determined by light-dark rather than hue relationships. Kelly’s large fields of ardent, often highly saturated unbroken color—so foreign to the Réalités nouvelles and Arp—derive their unique impressiveness from the fact that they are confined within forms of purged silhouettes and scrupulously bland execution, a contained sensuousness that also distinguishes the work of a number of other so-called “Hard-Edge” painters, many of them influenced by Kelly.

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Relief over Black, 2013, oil on canvas, two joined panels. ©ELLSWORTH KELLY/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Relief over Black, 2013, oil on canvas, two joined panels.


In most of Kelly’s paintings a single color is set against a neutral black or white; but even when he substitutes a second hue for the neutral, the same light-dark structure persists. Only in those rare pictures in which he has used three or more colors does Kelly attempt the more tenuous articulation of the true colorist, in which hue relationships assume the structural burden previously assigned to value contrasts. In his last exhibition (at Betty Parsons), Kelly showed one such picture, West Coast Landscape, 1960, made up of irregular horizontal shapes of blue, green, black and red in a vertical format vaguely suggesting a geological section.

Though it “worked,” West Coast Landscape failed nevertheless to speak expressively through its color. On the other hand, the rectilinear Two Reds, Blue and Green is by no means Kelly’s first successful color picture. As far back as 1952, he had composed movingly with color, but it is noteworthy that, like the later picture, the 1952 works also present rectilinear panels. This quantitative dosage of color within the framework of simple geometrical devices his affinities work of other new painters, like Noland and Louis, but Kelly’s future development probably lies in the assimilation of such multiple color chords to his more complex curvilinear images, a fusion of which he has thus far approached only tentatively and, to my mind, without great success.

Along with other critics, I have in the past pointed out the affinities of Kelly’s work with that of Arp, whom he met in 1950. But the more I confront the work of the two, the more I am impressed by the differences. To be sure, Kelly does share Arp’s smooth contouring and flat, evenly painted surfaces, but then these characteristics were common to the whole Precisionist tradition. Such facture is not a function of Kelly’s “impeccable technical skill,” as one critic has recently suggested, for any passably well-trained painter can achieve this sort of surface through simple diligence. Abstract-Expressionist “handwriting” demanded talent of a kind that Kelly may or may not have, but which he has, in any case, decided to suppress. For him this becomes a positive virtue insofar as the elimination of brushmarks, texture and value modulations force the expressiveness of the image to turn all the more on shape and scale, the most inventive areas of his art.

Morphologically, the differences between Arp and Kelly are subtle but crucial. Kelly’s sense of form does not emerge, as does Arp’s, from Surrealist biomorphism. Arp works improvisationally, his pencil or brush multiplying organic forms that only subsequently, by way of poetic association, suggest subjects. Kelly’s motifs, at least in their inception, derive from things seen. Though they lose their specific character in the process of abstraction, they lead to a greater variety of shapes than in Arp, whose limited biomorphic vocabulary exists, so to speak, before its associations to things seen.

The playfulness of Surrealist automatism is apparent in the casual way in which Arp’s metamorphic forms seem to expand, multiply and divide. By comparison, Kelly’s are inelastic and severe, and consequently his world is more static. Arp’s relaxed silhouettes are easily assimilated by the eye; Kelly’s shapes are taut, with many minute inflections of the edges which the eye does not catch immediately: what at first appears to be a continuous curve turns out to have splinters of straight edges in its contours.

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Curves, 2014, painted aluminum. ©ELLSWORTH KELLY/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Curves, 2014, painted aluminum.


Arp rarely presents his biomorphic shapes in anything but their entirety. While Kelly will sometimes do the same with his “free forms,” as, for example, in Black Ripe, he more frequently cuts them off by the frame. This practice opens up a whole series of possibilities for dissolving the traditional distinction between figure and ground still obtaining in Arp. In the latter’s reliefs and collages, the ground is not an entity in itself, but a residual foil for the biomorphic figures. It is inevitable—as the Gestalt psychologists have established—that a shape or figure given whole will take precedence in the “reading” of even a abstract image. Through his fragmentation of the figure Kelly reduces it to the status of the ground, for both become incomplete abstract shapes, and from there it is but another step to designing the figure—if it can still be called that—so that the profile of the ground is equally engaging. The result is a kind of jigsaw-puzzle ambiguity that gives the entire surface of the canvas equal weight and importance, as in a picture like Forty-Second, where the light and dark areas may be read interchangeably as figure and ground.

One of the most exhilarating aspects of Kelly’s art is the illusion of breadth and largeness imparted by works that remain no more than ample easel pictures in size. This is strikingly demonstrated when a Kelly and an Abstract-Expressionist painting of like size are juxtaposed. This majestic scale, in part the result of the simplicity and boldness of Kelly’s imagery, is very much enhanced by the particular segmentation of the motifs. Henry Geldzahler hinted at this when he wrote that “the images is cut off in such a way that we must finish it in our minds…” Whether we finish it or not, we do sense that the given segment of the abstract shape is only a fraction of its entirety. Since the dimensions of the canvas containing the given fragment average between 4 and 8 feet, we are forced—whether aware of it or not—to imagine the whole motif as immense, hence the feeling of scale. We can test this by studying Kelly’s smaller pictures. Where the given portion of the motif is slight, the sense of large scale prevails; where the great part of the motif is in evidence, the pictures seem too small.

In addition to some early architectural commissions, Kelly has exhibited several sculptures and is now finishing others for his exhibition this month at Betty Parsons. The remarkable success of those already shown has seemed to confirm what almost every writer on kelly has referred to as the “inherently” or “incipiently” sculptural character of his painting. I am unable to accept this view of Kelly’s art, as I find that much of his best painting exploits precisely those ambiguities of figure and ground, those framing devices, which are the province of painting alone. Indeed, I would say that his sculptures are more inherently pictorial than his painting is sculptural. That Arp should have progressed to monolithic sculpture in the round was more to have been expected, for his two-dimensional work had never exploited the pictorial. Kelly’s Gate and Pony (both 1959) are conceived not as three-dimensional entities, but as flat shapes, like those of the paintings, cut out and folded so as to turn in space. Their thin, evenly painted planes have no bulk and no more betray their aluminum substance than the shapes of the paintings reveal canvas or impasto.

The essentially pictorial quality is even more manifest in the seven sculptures now being completed. Only two of these move three-dimensionally, the blue and red Rocking Sculpture, which is folded in the manner of the earlier pieces, and a white sculpture, in which two curvilinear forms are joined at an angle, creating a kind of continuous “Yin-Yang” silhouette. Like the three reliefs, the two remaining free-standing sculptures are absolutely frontal and would be virtually invisible seen directly from the side, as the metal panels are far thinner from the stretcher of a painting.

Blue on Blue Sculpture is a relief recapitulating the painting Yellow Blue, also in the exhibition. The curvilinear yellow shape of the painting is now slightly raised in planar relief but is painted in a blue identical with the ground, so that the shadow it casts and the slightly different angle at which it catches the light replace color as the means of distinguishing the shape. This relief is very close in concept to Blue Tablet, which passed for a painting at the Jewish Museum exhibition, probably because it was made of painting canvas on rectangular stretchers. But its only articulation resulted from the fact that one of its two identically blue panels was brought forward slightly, breaking the continuity of the picture plane. If Kelly’s sculptures are pictorial, this is one instance where he has converted painting into sculpture. For the most part, however, the success of Kelly’s sculpture derives from the absolute concentration on just one phase of his painting: shape. Even color is marginal. Kelly is pleased by the idea that “a shape can stand alone,” and it is a tribute to his inventiveness in this area that his sculpture is as good as it is.

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