Paris, Galerie Maeght, Ellsworth Kelly, October - November 1958
Ellsworth Kelly's famous monolithic colored canvases from the late 1950s were "shapes" of color, progressing from compositions of geometric color forms balanced within the boundaries of the rectilinear canvas to shaped canvases and multi-panel paintings that defied the traditions of easel painting. With these variations, Kelly directly addressed the nature of the painted canvas as aesthetic object, engaging with the spatial interrelationships between the art and the wall, as well as the art and the viewer. Kelly is an artist who defies art historical reference by refusing to be linked to any one particular group or movement. Throughout his career, Kelly has been linked (albeit incorrectly) to Hard Edge painting, Op-Art, and most often Minimalist art. Although he may share some of the same artistic tendencies, such as reductive form and distilled color, Kelly's use of these approaches to painting predates them all, as exemplified by Cowboy from 1958. Truly believing that art does not need to adhere to categories, nor artists to movements, Kelly's primary concern was to develop a method for abstraction through an interest in form and the essential pattern of things.
Kelly's artistic training was a traditional one. After joining the army in 1943 and travelling to Europe for the war, Kelly returned to the states and in 1946 enrolled in the art school at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After two years, Kelly chose to move to Paris in 1948 under the G.I. bill instead of New York where gestural abstraction and action painting were king. In Paris, Kelly was heavily influenced by artists such as Mondrian, Malevich and Arp. In France he was also exposed to Byzantine mosaics and Cycladic art - in looking at the art of the past he was able to perfect his own architectural organization of forms. While Kelly's aesthetic was well on its way to being established, he did not meet with the success he was hoping for in Paris and returned to New York in 1954. The first paintings in New York, similar to the Paris paintings, consisted mainly of black and white canvases and typically were worked out in collage ahead of time. Kelly took photographs that captured patterns in architectural details, stairs, walls, and windows in fragmentary glimpses. In early collages and reliefs, Kelly further highlighted his concerns with angles, curves and shadows – in other words, with the edges of things. His interest in collage and cutouts evolved from the grand tradition of Picasso, Matisse and Braque. For Matisse, in particular, the paper cut-out hailed a renaissance in his creative activity as he embraced new themes of spontaneity late in his career in the 1940s. Jackson Pollock also chose to explore the cutout briefly in the late 1940s as an exercise in addition and subtraction, infused into his painterly drip technique. Depth perception is intrinsic to collage technique and in similar fashion to his contemporaries, Kelly's composition in Cowboy shares collage's sense of implied perspective and manipulation of foreground and background.
Kelly's juxtaposition of solid monochromatic areas of color in Cowboy render foreground and background virtually indistinguishable. There is an illusion of three dimensions in the geometry of the forms but there is conflicting perceptual data. It is difficult to read black and white simultaneously and hence the viewer's brain divides them, sensing juxtaposition and contrast. The artist consistently calls upon the element of tension to achieve pictorial vitality and Cowboy is a stunning realization of this desire. In a 1964 interview with Henry Geldzahler, the artist states, "I'm interested in the mass and color, the black and white – the edges happen because the forms get as quiet as they can be." (Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, 1996, p. 11) Throughout Kelly's career, the principal importance has been in shapes and the space that surrounds them while color functions as an additional asset in his great arsenal. The sharp angles of the present work threaten to push out from the paint surface, yet Kelly ultimately returns the viewer's attention to the painting's flatness and its identity as an object. The lines between the black and white forms vibrate with a tension that is prescient in terms of Kelly's joined shaped canvases to come in the following years.
Known for his serene, eloquent canvases which combine line, edge and plane with breathtaking economy of means, Kelly's use of color is equally paramount in his art. Cowboy employs two seemingly non-colors (black and white); however, in Kelly's hands, like in Franz Kline's Abstract Expressionist paintings from the same year, these polar opposites become tools of illusion. Contemplating the canvas, the viewer is led into two spaces: the eye can relish either in the purity of the white or in the velvety blackness, but it is in their simultaneous realization that the colors serve the artist's ultimate purpose. The asymmetrical juxtaposition of black with white in Cowboy throws the viewer's perception of depth into question, as the two planes of color can present many different visual relationships – the two can seem to glide sensually against each other or they can alternately recede into or push forth from the wall as support for the canvas.
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