Phaidon’s new publication, “Ellsworth Kelly”, offers a long overdue overview of the artist, his life and his work. We say long overdue because, as author Tricia Paik argues, the work of Ellsworth Kelly has endured chronic miscategorization throughout the years, leading to a delayed public understanding of his contribution to and positioning within the arts. Paik’s conversational tone and eye for intriguing detail takes us through a timeline of Kelly’s life, in which certain key aspects stand out.
Phaidon’s new publication, “Ellsworth Kelly”, offers a long overdue overview of the artist, his life and his work. We say long overdue because, as author Tricia Paik argues, the work of Ellsworth Kelly has endured chronic miscategorization throughout the years, leading to a delayed public understanding of his contribution to and positioning within the arts.
Paik’s conversational tone and eye for intriguing detail takes us through a timeline of Kelly’s life, in which certain key aspects stand out. On the one hand, the practice of birdwatching, which was encouraged during his childhood by his mother and grandmother. This would lead Kelly not only towards an appreciation for nature, but also towards the development of practiced and patient observational skills. On the other hand we have Kelly’s involvement as a young soldier during WWII in the American army’s ‘camouflage battalion’. The role of the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion, known as the “Ghost Army”, was tactical: to deceive the enemy, leading them astray, by impersonating real army units. For an artist whose work deals with the details of perception, the experience of controlling illusions is surely something that cannot be downplayed when considering his artistic development.
And yet, Kelly’s chronology is not quite linear. In the early stages of his practice Kelly already held a sense of his artistic ideals, which involved the investigation of vision without the intrusion of meaning. He was not interested in making art that reflected himself - rather, he was attracted to the idea of art that was “absent of artistic personality”. His entire oeuvre, therefore, has been a process constantly joined by it’s purpose; a joint progression. As one flips the pages, the growing sense of this fact is corroborated by Gavin Delahunty, one of this publication’s four guest writers. In his essay “Memory Recorded and Transferred”, Delahunty argues that “rather than operating according to a model of causation whereby the past results in the present, Kelly’s practice has more in common with a retroactive model whereby the present acts upon and re-activates the past.”
Kelly would always return to re-evaluate thoughts, sketches, or colors. He was able to do so by keeping a hold of notes, experimentations, drawings, and materials that would inspire him or objects that had simply ‘caught his eye’ (like a flattened paper cup on the street). In relation to this practice, of allowing his mind wander and his eyes to concentrate, Richard Shiff’s essay “That will be That” explores the connection between distraction and abstraction, arguing that Kelly’s quest towards an ‘objective vision’ required him to trust in the absence of mind, in order to focus primarily on form and color, without the interference of sense or significance.
In response to the perceived ‘flatness’ of his ‘objective vision’, Kelly has stated: “What I have done is to take the space out”. Taking the space out in order to abstract the perceived reality. However, Kelly never intended for his works to play a passive role in space. From the beginning, his artistic ideals involved a relation between artwork and environment. Clearly, since reality (either natural or man-made) was Kelly’s starting-point, he was not interested in isolating his work from it’s surroundings. His expansion into sculpture and site-specific installations was something that Kelly had prepared for, long before he had the chance to materialize these ideas. But even his paintings incorporate a particularity for placement. As Gary Garrels posits in his essay “Painting and Architecture”: “To see a Kelly painting sitting directly on the floor or hanging in storage is to see a stranded object waiting to come to life.”
That this book is able to provide examples not only of Kelly’s most known and exhibited works, but also of his first cut out (Head with a Beard, 1949), his initial experiments with collage, and his sketches for site-specific works, points to the quality and thoroughness of it’s contents. The compilation of all these images also points to Kelly as a true craftsman, always in a process of perfecting his method, diligently keeping note of his progress. And this is where a feeling arises of an artist ahead of his time, as sketches would take years to resurface and transform to completed works, and pieces begin to fall into place - conceptually - within the context of his entire production, instead of being assimilated within the context of a certain time period.
In an evaluation of Kelly’s artistic influences, one encounters an artist that embraced ideas which propelled his own, and rejected an association with ideas that ran contrary to his intentions. As Robert Storr announces in the essay “Starting Out - Starting Over”: “In the final reckoning the only issue that really matters to the individual artist - and ultimately to art - is what is there for me to do?”.
The publication of “Ellsworth Kelly” announces that the time has come to look upon the “extraordinarily long and graceful arc of Kelly’s oeuvre”, to recognize the artist as a masterful creator of his own visual syntax, inconspicuously at the vanguard.
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