YVE-ALAIN BOIS with Alex Bacon

Ellsworth Kelly:
Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Reliefs, and Sculpture:
Vol. 1, 1940-1953

(Cahiers d’Art, 2015)

Matisse in the Barnes Foundation
(Thames & Hudson, 2016)

Catalogue raisonnés, by surveying the totality of the work of a single artist, have traditionally served as resources for specialists, such as art historians and dealers. But in the past year or so, Yve-Alain Bois has broadened their relevance through a structuralist analysis that uses the venerable form as a means of examining every facet of an artist’s thinking, not merely as an inventory of artistic production. In Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Reliefs, and Sculpture (Cahiers d’art, 2015), Bois discovers within Kelly a conceptual practice based first in experimentation, then in the establishment and testing of a system comprised of works expressing different facets of this system. The following year, in a substantial essay on La Danse featured in Matisse in the Barnes Foundation (Thames & Hudson), Bois enacted a painstaking reconstruction of the genesis of the seminal work, making use of the totality of archival material surrounding the mural—photographs, letters, sketches, etc.—which enabled new insight into how Matisse was able to revitalize his practice at a key juncture. Bois’s work, as he describes it in what follows, is not a deconstruction or revision, so much as a close and intense test of art historical methodology; so as to open up new aspects of works that he shows have hitherto lain invisible due to a piecemeal analysis of parts, rather than the whole, of an artist’s work.

Alex Bacon (Rail): Recently you worked on two catalogues raisonnés, one of Ellsworth Kelly and one of works by Matisse in the Barnes Collection. Could you talk about how you approached the problem of putting together a catalogue raisonné, because in the case of both books you’ve developed an innovative approach.

Yve-Alain Bois: I never imagined I would do a catalogue raisonné, but I’ve always been interested in such books. Even in literature, I like to get the complete writings of a writer in order to get a full picture—to get an idea of what a writer, an artist, eliminates, what he or she gradually scoops out. I always find it extraordinarily helpful to understand the development and see things gradually fall into place. What are the possibilities that emerge? They emerge by eliminating others. I always find it fascinating.

So for the Kelly project it started with my desire to write a monograph. Given my structuralist education, in order to write I have to have precise knowledge of the corpus. It’s baggage I brought from my education: you need to have a corpus established in order to articulate the production in some meaningful way.

Rail: Is that a result of your time studying with Roland Barthes?

Bois: Yes, he was able to write his great book on Jules Michelet, which was almost structuralist but not yet, precisely because he had access to his complete works. That was in the early ’40s; Barthes was curing his tuberculosis in a sanatorium, and he had all the time in the world. He read the entire work of Michelet, which is thousands and thousands of pages. He filled up notecards with quotations, organized them thematically—that’s how the book germinated (and in fact Barthes continued to work like that all his life). It revealed Michelet, who was considered at the time as more of a historian, to be a great writer; the quality of Michelet’s writing hadn’t been taken into consideration. People knew his work but he had not entered the canon of French literature before Barthes, who was able to change that because he read the entire corpus.

When I started working on what I still thought of as a Kelly monograph, I thought I knew the French years very well because I’d already worked on this period at the time of the National Gallery of Art show devoted to it, in 1992. But I realized there were many many more things in the archive than I had been aware of. There’s this gigantic amount of material that I only had the time to skim through when I wrote my piece for the catalogue of the 1992 show. Seeing that, I came to think that to know the whole corpus of Kelly’s work, as I thought was necessary for me to do in order to write a book about it, I needed to figure out all the sketches, drawings, all the variations. I realized that what I basically needed to do for myself was a kind of catalogue raisonné. I would have to examine what people have written about the works, for example, be aware of the previous literature. The only typical aspect of a catalogue raisonné that I could skip (in order to write a monograph) was the research about the provenance of the works. But that part was almost entirely done already by Kelly’s archivist, Eva Walters, who had accumulated and sorted out a huge amount of documents. So, since I had become convinced that in order to write my book I had to do a mini catalogue raisonné for myself, which is a lot of work anyway, I thought: why don’t I combine this with what Eva had already done and produce indeed a real full-fledged raisonné?

At that point, about ten years ago, I was still conceiving of the catalogue raisonné as a preamble to writing a monograph. My model was David Sylvester’s work for the Magritte catalogue, or Wildenstein’s Monet catalogue raisonné: there are several volumes with short entries on each work, in chronological order, containing what we call the “tombstone” (title, date, material, provenance, exhibition history, literature and all that), and a page at most, sometimes just two paragraphs, commenting on the work in question; and then there is an independent monograph that recapitulates everything. That was basically my model, but then I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that simply because I had too much material—except for the very beginning, the “student” works, which are of course interesting but not that crucial. It would be detrimental or just frustrating for all this material documenting the evolution of Ellsworth’s work to just go in the trash because there’s no room. So I changed gears, and decided I’d just use the slow path through the entire corpus, giving each work the necessary attention it deserves, giving each work the scope it needs, and see how things develop. Once I chose that course, the independent monograph became redundant.

The speed at which Kelly evolves when he goes to Paris is fascinating. His first Paris works, done in November 1948, were faces based on Byzantine mosaics or paintings—they were works of art based on something, not exactly imitations, but interpretations of Byzantine heads. Only a year later he produces Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, one of his most important works (which he gave to the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou a few months before he died). I mean, it’s amazing. Within one year he had to learn Picasso and basically all of modern art, which he hadn’t really digested while he was a student in Boston. His first major breakthrough is the invention of what I call the “transfer,” of which Window is the prime example. Then there is the investigation of chance, of the grid, and of the monochrome panel. He had an idea a minute, and made thousands of sketches. In fact, he often complained to his friends that he did not have the time (let alone the money) to realize more than a fraction of those he’d like to do. His graphic output was, and would be, enormous. The urge to draw in Kelly is absolutely constant. He drew all the time.

There are many sketches that he drew in Paris, notably for reliefs, that he would only realize much later. That’s a really unique aspect of his practice, which fascinates me—this capacity to go back to some early thing, to stumble upon and look at the initial sketch fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years later, and make the decision to finally realize it as such, without changing anything (except the medium and size, of course, but that’s what he would have done originally as well: he usually went from a small sketch to a larger collage and then to the final painting or relief). What’s unique is the decision not to edit. I don’t think there are any other examples in the history of art, at least in modern art, and there is a logic to it. It is consistent with the practice of the “transfer,” which involves recording a flat pattern found in the world, on a flat surface, with as little transformation as possible; I always compare it to the rubbings of stone carvings that archeologists began to make several thousand years ago in China. For him, there’s no fundamental difference between an old sketch of his that he suddenly rediscovers in a sketchbook through which he is flipping and something he finds in the street. He has the same detached take on it, but also the same interest in it as if it were something that he found on the street, something whose shape he liked and which he copied in a sketchbook with as little twisting as possible.

Rail: How would you characterize the information recorded in the drawing, such that this transfer could be so direct? Because often he’s looking for, and finding, a shape he likes in the world, there’s still a transformation of sorts involved.

Bois: He also does drawings that have nothing to do with things found in the world, but it’s more often like he does a doodle and suddenly feels: “Oh, I like this curve.” The curve he traced, often quasi-automatically, becomes itself a source. Speaking about a sketch for one of his curve sculptures, he told me: “I like it just as I like this flattened ice cream cone on the street. That’s it. It’s not that much different for me.”

Rail: Is it a mnemonic device?

Bois: No. Not mnemonic.

Rail: More like a blueprint?

Bois: Yes, for the transfer stuff, it’s not mnemonic, it’s just “there.” What he traces on paper is something that’s already flat. There’s no perspectival foreshortening, no subjective point of view. The “flattened ice cream cone” he mentioned is something he actually picked up. And that’s the sketch. The sketch is just the flattened ice cream paper cone he stumbled upon in the street. He pasted it as is in one of his “tablets,” as he called the boards on which he glued clippings or tiny drawings that were not done in sketchbooks. And he made a painting repeating exactly the proportion and curve of the ice cream cone. The sketch is the thing in that particular case. It doesn’t happen that often, but it helps understanding the way he works.

There’s one relief he made in 2002, which is red with the corner that’s folded in white, like a triangle on the upper left corner. That was a piece of paper he found in the street in the early ’70s. Exactly like that.

Rail: I’m curious, since you said you have written and thought about Kelly for many years: what did you learn from this close looking at his entire corpus? What would you say are the new things that came out to you through this project about the works and the man you know so well?

Bois: Two things. One is how hard he worked. This man never stopped, even though there are moments of intense depression—especially in Paris, when he was very poor (remember, he sold only one work during the close to six years he spent there, and it was to the father of a close friend, the actress Delphine Seyrig). His energy is quite striking. With Jack Youngerman (then Seyrig’s husband) and two other friends, he persuaded a man called Jean-Robert Arnaud to open a gallery in the basement of the bookshop he owned in Paris with Arnaud’s boyfriend, the American painter John Franklin Koenig. And so they spent several weeks, maybe two months cleaning and turning the basement into a gallery. Many people came to the opening, like Nina Kandinsky, Henri-Pierre Roché, Michel Seuphor, the filmmaker Robert Bresson—a whole slice of the mini French art world of the time—but he didn’t sell a single painting. Even though that happened, he wrote to a friend from his Boston years something like: “I know this is an important show, that what I’m doing is right.” This youthful self-confidence, and how much and how hard he worked—that’s really impressive. It’s crucial to artists of this kind of longevity. He never wanted to be part of any group.

The second thing that I learned, and that’s more important, concerns the nature of Kelly’s abstraction. What I had done in my early text (for the National Gallery show) is establish the idea of non-composition as principle and guiding force of all of his work. That was important, and I will always feel proud of that essay, because at that point Kelly’s work, especially that of the Paris years, still appeared to many critics as basically eclectic. But what I found out was that maybe I had not been clear enough about the nature of Kelly’s abstraction. What I understood now is that he’s not an “abstract artist” in the sense that we usually understand it. He’s completely uninterested in abstract categories. There’s no universal for him. That’s why he has nothing to do with Mondrian or even Newman—of course, Newman was against the idea of the universal in Mondrian (as something veiled under the contingencies of appearances), but he was interested in abstract, general categories, in concepts (like “chaos,” “man,” etc.).

A good illustration of that point is discussed in the last entry of the Kelly book, which concerns the two last works he made in Paris. One is a white square with a black border and one is black square with a white border. The last one especially was compared to Malevich’s 1915 Black Square, but it really has nothing to do with it. Kelly’s square is of the exact same measurement as a frosted glass that struck him at the terrasse of a Paris café. He went to measure it—to record the exact size of that specific square. That’s completely different from Malevich’s black square. For Malevich, a black square is a black square is a black square; it’s an emblem. It could be on a piece of cloth, on glass, on canvas, on paper, on his tombstone; it could be a lithograph, anything you want. It would always be “the black square.” But Kelly’s all about the particular; for him it’s not “the black square” but this black square, the shape and color and size of that particular square, or of that ice cream cone. That’s not abstract. It’s concrete.

Rail: I’m curious how it was working on the Matisse catalogue raisonné at the same time.

Bois: For the Matisse book, I was the editor and was asked by the Mellon Foundation to organize the catalogue raisonné of the Matisses in the Barnes Foundation, and we hired two young art historians, one American (Karen Butler) and one French (Claudine Grammont), because a lot of stuff to research would be in Paris. They worked under my guidance, and I gave them tasks, helped them organize the entries and all that, meeting with them regularly here or there. I edited the writing many times.

Rail: What about the conceptual? I mean it’s not the same as the Kelly raisonné, it’s a catalogue of the Matisse holdings within the Barnes Collection. Did you have a conception of this? Not every work was written about extensively, but most of them were. Was that your idea?

Bois: Of course many of the works in the collection are great, but let’s say a quarter of the works are not very good Odalisque paintings [Laughter], so there’s not that many interesting things to say about them. This is not the case of course for the several extraordinary works that are there. One is Bonheur de vivre (by the way we preferred to keep the original title rather than Joy of Life, because we felt it was not a good translation). To do the complete research on all of the works, which hadn’t been done, was daunting. I was particularly interested in the project because we took all works one by one from the wall, took them to the conservation lab. We had a chance to look at all the work closely with the conservator Barbara Buckley and discovered quite a few things. That led to my decision on behalf of the Mellon Foundation to ask Barbara to work with a conservation scientist (Jennifer Mass) on Bonheur de vivre. And what they found is amazing: first, that several areas that are grayish and muddy and pale were actually very bright yellow (so this painting, which is already bursting with saturated colors in its present state, was actually even more colorful in its original state). The second thing they found, and I was delighted by that since it confirmed something I had hypothesized years ago, is that Matisse abandoned the traditional use of the cartoon while working on that very painting. We could trace that he used it in a corner and abandoned it. The text that Barbara and Jennifer wrote for the book explains all this in detail.

Also, we knew for a long time that Matisse made progress photographs of his big Dance mural, but we found out that the sets of photographs Matisse sent to Barnes were not complete. There were also photographs in the Matisse archive in Paris and we decided to publish them all. It was very difficult to sort them out because sometimes they looked the same but they’re not, and Matisse numbered them but made mistakes in the numbering. We also decided to publish the entire correspondence between Matisse and Barnes. It’s a volume that grew. It’s one of the things where since you have so much material, why not make it available? Finally, given that the volume was celebrating Barnes’s Matisse holdings, we decided we’d each contribute a general essay pertaining to them. Karen Butler wrote about Barnes’s aesthetics and his formation (notably his debt to Leo Stein); Claudine Grammont on the why and how of his collecting Matisse (his choices, etc.); and I wrote myself on the impact that the commission of Dance (together with that of his illustrations for Mallarmé’s poetry, on which he worked at the same time) had on his career. I took this as an opportunity to analyze a crisis that began brewing around 1925 and led to Matisse’s near complete block in 1930—a crisis from which Barnes unknowingly helped Matisse come out. I look into the aftermath of this awakening, up until 1935. The 1925 – 35 period of Matisse’s production is not written about that much, so I rewarded myself for all the trouble of editing this massive three-volume book by laying out what I had to say about it. As I said, it’s a volume that grew!


Alex Bacon

ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.