Ellsworth Kelly, Tablet: 1949 - 1973 The Drawing Center

On a recent afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, when my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter waddled up, babbling, grabbed a ballpoint pen, and stood close in front of an open expanse of white wall. She became quiet, almost contemplative, staring at the wall. Then she made a tiny blue dot. She followed up with a straight slash, a few quick scribbles. Then, pressing the pen’s tip down, concentrating hard, she began to draw a single line, which extended some 10 feet. She arced it up as high as she could reach, she dragged it precipitously to the floorboards, she looped it back horizontally on itself in a tangle of wide, noodling ovals. Occasionally she stood back to see what she had done, and then, apparently pleased, went at it again. It struck me that this was drawing in its purest state, unhindered by representation, by composition, by rectangular boundaries of the page, and that what she was doing was trying to figure out what lines are and what they can do: they go straight, they squiggle, they form shapes and angles. As she drew, her eyes were fixed on the line itself, as though she wanted to see where it was going.

Ellsworth Kelley’s signature works, especially those dating from the middle of the 1960s, tend to be either separate monochromatic panels, irregularly shaped canvases or canvases joined to form a shape, the two or three colors involved fiercely contrastive and projecting a physical volume and weight. Unlike the work of Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt, Kelley’s color never implies introspective depths; rather, Kelly’s stridently unnatural colors become the shapes, and assert themselves into positive and negative space. It is though Kelly took Clement Greenberg’s notion of the opticality of the flat plane and turned it into a sculptural element in the way Dan Flavin turned florescent light into a precise, three-dimensional presence. Every trace of painterly touch or subjectivity excluded, the color at once singular and absolute, Kelly’s paintings exist as hovering objects in dialogue with their architectural surroundings, and yet the shapes themselves are often idiosyncratic and feel hand drawn. In Black Ripe, 1955, and again in Blue Ripe, 1959, one does not focus so much on the flat, central expanse of black or blue, but on the goofy, wavy edge of the blob-like form against the narrow, pristine white ground. And in the bright, elegant, and often monumental curve paintings of the 1970s, such as Blue Curve III, 1972, the eye tracks the swift, arcing border between an electric blue and a white that strangely shimmers against the white of the wall. Kelley’s work is as much about line as about shape or color, and it is ultimately rooted in drawing.

Small, intimate, informal drawings often provide a glimpse of complex artists at their most open and experimental. Consider Cezanne’s astonishingly free late pencil sketches, the fierce doodles which fill Picasso’s pocket notebooks, Pollock’s early automatic drawings, or more recently Richard Serra’s oilstick drawings and the delicate stick drawings, which lead up to Brice Marden’s large, calligraphic oil paintings. In drawings, the viewer feels closer to the artist’s hand, eye, and mind; drawings are about searching and thought rather than completion. Drawings can move at the speed of thought, and can occur in thought’s awkward places. Curated by Yve-Alain Bois, Tablet: 1949 - 1973 includes countless drawings and collages, selected by Ellsworth Kelly himself, stacked one on top of the other forming a band that extends across every wall of the The Drawing Center’s main gallery. The exhibit also features a beautiful, expensive, limited edition book reproducing the show as well as a catalogue with a characteristically illuminating essay by Yves-Alain Bois. The current exhibition is in many ways an extension of Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948 - 1955, which Yves-Alain Bois helped organize for the Harvard University Art Museums in 1999 and which also included an excellent catalogue, but the drawings in Tablet, dashed off on stray scraps of paper and in one instance on a squashed snow cone wrapper, are more casual, unselfconscious, and indiosyncratic. They are the odd, hurried doodles of a major artist.

Ellsworth Kelly was living in Paris on a G.I. Bill stipend during the drunken, heroic years of what Clement Greenberg termed (not without a whiff of irony) “American Type Painting,” and from the beginning Kelly’s aesthetic impulses ran counter to New York School subjectivism. Kelly sought to root abstraction apart from subjective composition and style, which second generation Abstract Expressionists often gruesomely demonstrated can atrophy into work that is mannered or decorative, but without the transcendental aspirations of Malevich’s Suprematism or Mondrian’s Neoplasticism; an American pragmatist, Kelly’s art would be concrete and materialist. At the end of 1940s, Kelly began doing automatic or blind drawings, but unlike the automatic drawings of surrealists like Andre Masson, Kelly’s drawings are based on particular objects like a length of seaweed, a coat hanger, or a fragment of a building. Inevitably, many of these drawings are a tangled mess, but the best of them embody a basic, groping language of line, sometimes faint and squiggly, other times assured straight slashes, which combine, recombine, transform and scatter, as though seeking form. Kelly also did drawings of odd, unassuming architectural and urban details, the patterns in chimney bricks, the shadows cast by a building, which he telescopes in on, and lifts out of context, so that the drawings look entirely abstract. Indeed, Kelly has periodically taken photographs as a way of jogging his memory of his observations, such as Beach Cabana, Meschers 1, 1950 and Bricks, Meschers 1, 1950, and the drawings themselves are meant to be, not inventions or embellishments, but literal transfers. In some of these drawings, especially the pencil sketches of windows and street awnings, the source is evident, but in the strongest, most original pieces, Kelly amplifies details into strange, centerless, chaotic, patterns. In the studies of mended skylights, for example, short, thick, lines are scattered over a loosely drawn grid; in the numerous studies for the justly famous “La Combe” paintings narrow rectangles are hatched and clustered at jagged, irregular angles; and in his wonderful ink drawings of glass roof patterns, the vertical rectangles on the long horizontal sheet look arbitrarily generated in a kind of fractal non-pattern. Many of Kelly’s drawings point to an interest in randomness, disorder, and ephemeral patterns, such as the clusters of different sizes, some free-floating, others forming a loose patchwork grid, which comprise his studies of light reflecting on water. During his pivotal tenure in France, Kelly came under the influence of form Dada artist Jean Arp and his wife Sophie Tauber-Arp, both of whom worked with collage using chance procedures to arrange largely biomorphic shapes, and he developed a friendship and correspondence with the composer John Cage, whose work also employed chance procedures. For example, Kelly did an extended series in which he cut ink drawings of brush strokes into grids of squares and arranged them by chance, the lines of varying widths angling and curving in different direction through the squares. Each line is a shape with its own peculiar identity—some bleed, some elegantly taper, some are clunky—and together they pull against the rigid format of the grid. Chance procedures for Kelly, like automatic drawing, are a means of discovery within a basic visual language.

These drawings, many of which were included in Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948 - 1955, represent relatively finished efforts, and most of the work in Tablet is of a different order. Without titles and arranged thematically, rather than chronologically (most of the pieces seem to have been lifted from a drawer and probably could not be dated very precisely), Tablet displays Kelly’s distinctive sense of line and shape in its embryonic form. There are little swarms of line, which resemble Kelly’s exercises in automatism based on landscape, but here the lines have an even more fleeting quality. There are curiously undulating X shapes, single coiling bands that look like falling strips of cloth, or titled, uneven, morphing rectangles with surprisingly evoke the lyrical ease of Miro’s abstraction of the 1930s. Indeed, many of Kelly’s rectangles and ovals have a formless, blob-like quality which place them somewhere between geometrical abstraction and surrealism’s biomorphic forms. Among the most intriguing and playful drawings in Tablet are the ones drawn directly on maps and newspaper photographs. Kelly tracks the point and line geometrical abstraction and surrealism’s biomorphic forms. Among the most intriguing and playful drawings in Tablet are the ones drawn directly on maps and newspaper photographs. Kelly tracks the point and line geometry of a city map, with evident humor picks out the rectangles and proportion of the torsos of women walking down a city street, and in a whole series of drawings he traces the long, flapping curves of sailboat masts. After devoting the better part of the 1960s to multi-panel monochromatic works, in the early 1970s Kelly returned to his more explicit interest in line with his dazzling curve paintings, and this is reflected in the drawings. These are sharp, elegant, concave curves cutting through compressed triangles, and there are also drawings, which consist of a single line authoritatively curving across the page. From early on, Kelly has focused on the basic visual grammar of point, line, shape, and color, and his sleek, curving line on an otherwise unmarked piece of paper is a decisive assertion of what a line can do: activate the space around it.

Ellsworth Kelly’s art, and his early drawings in particular, has often been understood in highly conceptual terms. Yves-Alain Bois, for example, stresses that Kelly’s early experiments with automatism, chance procedures, and mechanical transfer drawings were intended to eliminate the artist’s subjective presence in the work and to sidestep conscious compositional choices, and he even suggests that Kelly uses architectural or natural details like windows or light on water as Duchampian readymades. Kelly’s Tablet has also been compared with Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, the massive compendium of photographs on which many of Richter’s paintings are based and which he periodically exhibits as an independent work. But while Richter is drawn to amateur photography for what he regards as its objectivity and stylelessness, Kelly’s drawings are personal, their forms idiosyncratic, their sense of line exhibiting a style as distinctive as that of Paul Klee. These are tricky issues to sort out, and I think that critics and theorists like Yves-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, both of whom participated in a panel discussion at The Drawing Center on Tablet, conflate the subjective presence of the artists in the work with individuality of style. The roiling lines in de Kooning’s charcoal drawings,, such as the great crucifixion series exhibited at The Drawing Center several years ago, are invested with an intense subjectivity mediated only by de Kooning’s mastery of the Baroque draughtmanship of Rubens. Kelly’s drawings, by contrast, are low key, personal, and quizzical; they are not about expression much less virtuosity, but about discovery. The drawings in Tablet are too incidental and open to fit within a sophisticated aesthetic ideology, and their charm is that they give one the sense of the private presence of the artist thinking, daydreaming at the kitchen table, on the subway, at a dull party, on whatever envelope or page of newsprint happened to be on hand. Unlike the more finished drawings, the pieces assembled in Tablet feel like they are part of the artist’s daily life, literally drawn onto daily life’s clutter and debris. Although many of the drawings are undoubtedly related to paintings and sculptures, they are not studies; they are stray thoughts, musings, jokes, fantasies.

Modernism, and abstraction in particular, has always been about a return to the fundamentals of visual vocabulary. The problem, of course, has always been knowing what that means, what counts as “fundamental.” Watching my daughter drawing free-form all over the wall, it occurred to me what is basic is not line much less geometry, but is rather what one might call invented line, made line, where “making” need not imply expressive subjectivity. My daughter makes lines, and sometimes thinks about those lines and shapes, but none of it is directly expressive of any particular subjectivity: they are just made. In his more formal drawings, Ellsworth Kelly goes to considerable lengths to avoid traditional ideas of creation and academic technique. The great and instructive virtue of Tablet’s bits of scrap paper, newsprint, and wrappers is that there is no such pressure. Here Kelly is just making lines, finding shapes.


Daniel Baird