Art Essays

Ellsworth Kelly’s Way of Seeing

By Jack Stanley

Feb 23, 2024

Ellsworth Kelly’s Way of Seeing

Ellsworth Kelly was about to turn 33 when he staged his first exhibition in New York City. By then, he’d already served in the military, lived in Paris, met Picasso and, in 1953, returned to America. In Paris, he sold one painting in six years before he was evicted from his studio and sent packing back to New York. When he arrived back on home turf, his paintings did little better. He was seen as too European, too out of step with the artistic tides of the city. At that very first exhibition, Kelly only sold two paintings. Despite the auspicious beginnings, though, those years in Paris were pivotal to Kelly.

Kelly’s time in Paris, particularly the time he was living there in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, shaped his approach to form, line and colour. Across all of his work – from early drawings through to his chapel, Austin, built in Texas – form, line and colour would be the three essential elements to everything Kelly did, the rules to which he restricted himself. 

Kelly’s approach to colour and form came, in part, from his time in the so-called Ghost Army during the Second World War. Kelly served alongside other artists in the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, coming up with new deceptions and fake targets as they travelled through France. In early paintings after the war (including 1951’s The Meschers) there was a nod to camouflage, although eventually Kelly said that the influence of this period on his painting was overstated. It taught him about “the space between the picture and the viewer” – which was to be a recurring theme – and most importantly it took him, for the first time, to Paris.

After visiting during the war, Kelly returned in the late ‘40s. He enrolled, and never showed up, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, landing him in an artistic milieu that has since become legendary. Picasso’s influence was still clear, Brancusi was working a stone’s throw away and a new generation of American artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, were living in the city. The six years Kelly lived in Paris had an everlasting impact on his work. 

Kelly’s colours were inspired by the other artists around him, the bright colours used by European painters compared to the more muted, mixed tones of his American contemporaries. Compare, for example, the boldness and the brightness of Kelly’s work with the darker feeling of another great American colourist, Mark Rothko, who was working at the same time. 

Despite the focus on the bright and the bold, Kelly’s colours were never exactly the same. An exhibition may seem to be packed with red but, in reality it was a myriad of slightly different reds. Kelly never liked the scientific process of creating the same colour over and over again, of weighing out the pigment and following a strict recipe. Instead, he mixed them roughly, a couple of tubes here or there. This helped give his work its distinctive look of pure, unadulterated colour. “I just love colours,” Kelly said in 2015. “You look at one and sometimes you just feel it has this sweet juice.”

In Paris, Kelly began looking at the architecture around him, which came to the fore with a series of Windows he worked on in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. One of these works changed everything for the young Kelly. “Painting as I knew it was over for me,” he wrote later. “Future works should be unsigned, anonymous objects. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to produce; everything had to be exactly as it was, with nothing superfluous.” Suddenly, the world around Kelly was begging to be recreated in his work. “Everything belonged to me, the glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched up panes, the lines on a road map, the corner of a Braque painting, litter in the street.”

Looking at the world around him, Kelly would sketch forms and shapes onto receipts or newspaper clippings. These instant notes would turn into methodical planning, experimenting with the ways to recreate the forms he had glimpsed in the world. His paintings, he was keen to point out, were not just representations. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things,” he said.

With the world newly opened up to Kelly, he began his move to abstraction, developing a style that was unmistakably, unarguably, his. In part this was the forms taken from the architecture around him, leading to the development of his famous hard edge, but a natural influence remained. A childhood interest in ornithology, he later claimed, had taught him how to see and, in the curves of his work, people saw natural lines and bodily shapes. “Some of my shapes and curves have a connection to parts of the body, but I don’t try to do that at all,” he said. “I want my paintings to be voluptuous in some ways, and bodies are very voluptuous.” 

With his aim to recreate the forms of the world around him, adding nothing, Kelly began removing himself from his artworks. He was so desperate for them to be anonymous that he even removed any evidence of brushstrokes from his paintings. Decoration, he said later, is “like bad painting.” Removing all decoration, and focusing so purely on the form, Kelly removed the things he painted from context. These real objects, curves, buildings and shapes suddenly became entirely abstract.

 Whether it was through his pure colours, his fragmented perceptions or his unadorned style, Kelly was doing more than just recreating the world around him. His ambition was to introduce a new way of seeing, a more intuitive way of viewing the forms around us. “Since birth we get accustomed to seeing and thinking at the same time,” he said. “But I think that if you can turn off the mind and look at things only with your eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract.”

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