Postscript: Ellsworth Kelly
The paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, who died on Sunday, at the age of ninety-two, have the suddenness of miracles, and the improbability. Their emphatic shapes and clarion colors, in myriad formats, are unreasonably rational and ascetically luxuriant. No modern movement or general style—not minimalism, Pop, or Op, not geometric or hard-edge or color-field abstraction—usefully contains them. You are on your own when you look at them. I think that their open secret is innocence, maintained at fantastic levels of talent, dedication, and savoir-faire.
Like a lot of people over the seven-decade course of Kelly’s career, I came to appreciate his greatness slowly, even grudgingly, and then all at once, and permanently. His independence was a problem for me as a tyro aesthete in the sixties. It was hipness-proof. His paintings weren’t a kind of art. They seemed to present themselves as art in essence, immaculately conceived. They made me feel, precisely, dumb, with nothing to say.
My epiphany occurred thirty-some years ago, in a now defunct uptown gallery, with a white, shaped canvas—an elongated fan shape, gently curved along the top. It was probably about ten or twelve feet long, though in my memory it feels very much longer. The unhurried curve got me. It was like the horizon of a world that made a non-world of all of the space outside it. While my eye was tracing it, I felt a brief, intense flash of something that I can’t name: a perception of perception, perhaps. A short circuit in the brain. And yet the curve was just a contour of a wall-hung object. I wasn’t surprised, though a little spooked and lonely, to observe the apparent obliviousness of other people in the gallery.
Who could make such a thing happen?
Kelly’s story is now a legend: the art-smitten, bird-watching, shy, gay kid from Newburgh, New York, who served in the “Ghost Army”—camouflage experts who dissembled Allied military deployments before and after D-Day—and was staked by the G.I. Bill to six years in Paris, from 1948 to 1954. There he absorbed Matisse’s mergers of drawing and color, Arp’s methods of composing by chance, and other modern-art innovations. He distilled them into a mode of chaste abstraction based on observed fact: details of architecture, happenstances of light and shadow. Call it Ghost Art, a translation from reality into something fully real, itself, only different.
Being in Paris—where his chagrin at his bad French made him decline a chance to talk with Picasso—Kelly missed out on the glory years of Abstract Expressionism in New York. How lucky was that, for him and us? When finally he moved here, to indigent digs on the downtown waterfront, it was with faint hope of fitting into an art scene dominated by the painterly rhetoric of Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko, which would surely have distracted him if he had encountered it earlier. Even when emerging Pop art and minimalism made him seem, retrospectively, a prophet of their audacious and reductive ways, he stood apart. He had French taste on the chassis of a pragmatic American soul.
Red, Blue, Green
Some great art enfolds us in sensuous pleasures, making us happier, and some snaps us to rigorous attention, making us better. Kelly’s does both at once, if you let it.