“Kelly Confidential” (Ellsworth Kelly drawings)

“Kelly Confidential” (Ellsworth Kelly drawings)
Art in America
December, 2002

In many ways, art can be seen as the result of a narrowing of focus. After all, we share the same world; it is what we choose from that world and how we put it together that makes the difference. A work of art is a pinpoint perspective, with all other influences filtered out, and the choices an artist makes in narrowing down the possibilities usually remain a mystery to the viewer. We see the result but never know just what it is that makes that particular artist tick.

The closest I've come to experiencing what it is like to be in another artist's head during the process of creation was the recent exhibition at New York's Drawing Center of what can loosely be called "drawings" by Ellsworth Kelly. Titled "Tablet 1948-1973," it is a collection of around 200 examples, framed in groups, of the most mundane household detritus--magazine and newspaper clippings, a cigarette package, a Sno-Cone wrapper, a ticket stub, gallery announcements, letters and envelopes, jotted notes, a subway map--each piece of which has been transformed, through a few strokes of pencil, pen or brush, into a signature Kelly. Perusing them, it seemed as if almost any visual stimulus could get him going. Indeed, he said later of the time in which he did them, "everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made.... It all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched panels, lines on a road map, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street." The greater part of the exhibition is from the '50s and '60s; in these scraps covered with compulsive markings can be found the seeds of ideas Kelly, now 79, would mine for years to come, ultimately turning them into the flatly painted canvases, multipanel paintings and smooth-surfaced metal sculptures for which he is so well known.

Kelly's interests have always been purely formal ("The form of my painting is the content," he has said), and he has spent much of his life exploring what happens when a gently curved line or shape is placed in a geometric context. Although this esthetic austerity contrasts with the overt emotionality of the Abstract Expressionists who were dominant in his youth, there is a marked tension in the way Kelly's simple, emblematic shapes appear to resist containment, and even in the most preliminary sketches they do not float free but strain against the confines of the rectangular borders he draws around them. There is subtle tension, too, in the uneasy relationship between the random and the calculated--another of Kelly's lifelong preoccupations-which manifests itself here when his geometric and biomorphic shapes are placed, not on his usual neutral grounds, but on "found" backgrounds busy with words, pictures and texture.

Sometimes these juxtapositions are just plain funny, as when Kelly, doodling on a photograph from a magazine, discovers a favorite bent trapezoidal shape in the crook of a soldier's arm (it was the time of the Vietnam War). In another news photo, he finds geometric relevance in the torsos of two men--one a young black man wearing a short skirt and cowboy boots, the other white-haired and using an umbrella as if it were a cane--who are passing each other on the street.

Throughout we are tantalized by the snippets of stories we glean, and an enigmatic autobiography emerges. What impulse led Kelly to draw an irregular bulging square around a scrawled note reading "he may devote himself wholly to an admiring scrutiny of D.S. She is a charming actress and a very pretty girl"? A typewritten letter from Sidney Janis Gallery inviting Kelly to dinner is covered with bisected triangles, and he has drawn a jerky oval with ballpoint over the obituary of a lampshade designer. Then there are the penciled leaflike shapes on a telegram dated Sept. 12, 1965, which reads: "PHONE ME CAN'T GET YOU--MOTHER." The proliferation of outmoded letterheads, logos, type and illustrations--along with classified ads listing houses for $19,800 and news items such as the one announcing a concert for which "Leonard Bernstein lends his baton to the Department of Sanitation Band"--indicate another time, another world.

The greatest gift this collection offers is that it allows us to participate in Kelly's feelings of excitement and discovery as he worked out his ideas. Concentration, energy and purpose are manifest in these fragments of paper on which the artist drew the same images over and over in his quest for perfect resolution. There is an urgency, too, in the use of whatever was at hand, as if the ideas were coming too fast for him to take the time to search for proper drafting material. Leaving the Drawing Center, I felt as if I were walking down the street wearing Ellsworth Kelly glasses. Suddenly the neighborhood that I had known for years, the familiar buildings, trucks, lampposts and street signs, became elements in one big abstraction--a wealth of triangles, squares and lyrical curves just waiting to be made into something. The effect was complete.


-Carol Diehl