Ellsworth Kelly’s career represents both the height of modernist painting and its diminution. His influences were decidedly modern, but his version of minimalism—pioneering in its time—mirrored the play of chance and flux in the experimental music and dance of postwar America. Well-known for painting according to chance operations, Kelly saw himself as resisting the painterly impulse to freeze dry life, to stultify time—painting, he thought, most often opposed itself to the brute movement of a life that changes according to chance; his painting was meant to expose itself to that movement and to its wide open consequences.
Though not perhaps of paramount importance to the sort of postmodernism that saw the full powers of Johns and Warhol, there is a very real sense in which Kelly’s aesthetic claim resisted and moved beyond the modernism of, for instance, Frank Stella (and certainly, the abstract expressionism of Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko). Like Robert Rauschenberg, Kelly seemed always to move in the direction of indeterminacy (and never in the direction of the dehydration of life).
Kelly was born in the state of New York in 1923. He died in that same state (but in a different town) in 2015. Though his earliest training in art came by way of the modernism of pre-WWII America, after the war (and after a stint in the US military) Kelly rather quickly found a home with the pioneers of a new, radical, experimental break from the modernist ethos. It came in the form of two giants of 20th century American art—John Cage, the experimental composer, and Merce Cunningham, the experimental dancer. Cage was known widely for his piece 4’33”, which consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of rests, to be performed silently by a performer (or performers). He also pioneered the use of chance operations in his compositions, using the I Ching (a Chinese book of chance) to determine the notes, durations, timbres, etc. of his pieces.
Kelly’s association with Cage (and Cunningham) left a lasting impression, as his overarching aesthetic sensibility (and his use, at a certain time, of chance operations to determine the size of abstract shapes on his canvases) seem to come straight out of Cage’s artistic vision. What is perhaps left to us to wonder is the extent to which Kelly was instrumental in developing those techniques along side of Cage and Cunningham.
Kelly’s style was decidedly minimal. He often favored only one or two colors, repeated in simply geometric patterns to cover the canvas. Sometimes the shapes that those color blocks took were determined by chance (which, as we have said, may very well have been a result of John Cage’s influence). He seemed to prefer bright, lively colors to dark or muted tones, and he sometimes painted on irregularly shaped canvases.
The use of chance in Kelly’s work (whether in the form of chance operations or simply in the recognition of chance in the aesthetic spirit of the piece) and also the vividness of his colors, implies a celebration of indeterminate life. Where art before him seemed to want to hold life tight, restrain it, understand it, analyze it, he sought to let it move where it wanted to move. He saw himself not as creating images but of finding them. In an important sense, that is as radical a departure from high modernism as any.
Notable works by Kelly include Seine (1950), Blue Tablet (1962), and the series Gray (1972-83). Seine consists of rectangles, black and white, ordered and arranged by chance. It was an early expression, and one of the purest expressions for Kelly, of indeterminacy. Blue Tablet consists of two blue planes (two canvases painted the same color blue) arranged and joined so that one is in relief. While not indeterminate in the same way that Seine is, Blue Tablet seems to affirm the openness of a life that elides determinacy. Gray, began a full decade later, was a long project conceived of as an anti-war protest. The series consists of arranged canvases each painted monochromatically in greyscale.
Kelly’s career, which bridged the periods of expressionism and minimalism, also bridged the ideologies of modernism and its eventual resistance. In ways, his growth was not as dynamic, nor as far reaching, as for instance Robert Rauschenberg (a contemporary, who also worked, albeit more closely, with John Cage), but his work remains a fixture in the effort to turn art toward life.
Ellsworth Kelly Blue/White/Red, 1970-71 Lithograph in colors, on Arjomari paper, with full margins, 32 1/4 x 10 3/4 in
Ellsworth Kelly Red Curve (for Joel) 1993 Lithograph in red, on Arches 88 paper 22 x 16 in
Ellsworth Kelly Red Curve V, 1982 oil on canvas 90¾ x 151½ inches
Ellsworth Kelly Untitled (EK 692), 1983 corten steel 69 x 68½ x ½ inches
Ellsworth Kelly Untitled (EK683), 1983 painted aluminium 52½ x 120 x 3½ inches
Ellsworth Kelly Dark Green Panel I, 1982 painted aluminum 42 x 32 5/8 x 1 ¾ inches