October 28, 2013

Gallery Talk Addenda: Kelly's Folly Alreadymade

American painter Ellsworth Kelly remembers a visit he made in 1949 to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris where the windows “between the paintings” held more fascination for him than the art on display. He has cited that memory as the moment he decided to make “objects” instead of paintings:

“I made a drawing of the window and later in my studio I made what I considered my first object, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. From then on, painting, as I had known it was finished for me. The new works were to be painting/objects, unsigned, anonymous. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there, alreadymade, and I could take from everything.”(1)

Benjamin Buchloh has theorized that Kelly’s decision liberated him from the “historically available and the historically prohibited options for articulating aesthetic experience.” Accordingly, Kelly was able to envision a new practice that would transform painting from that which was “already defined” to something that was “alreadymade.” Painting as an “act of an emancipated subjectivity had vanished altogether” and the only viable option remaining for Kelly, with traditional figure/ground relationships and spiritual/transcendent color theories discredited, was “to activate the viewing space, or intensify spectatorial participation.”(2)

It is important to note that both Donald Judd and Frank Stella would also arrive at similar rejections of “relational painting” to focus on very direct methods of working. Judd wanted to eliminate what he called “the whole European tradition” based on “a priori systems” of rationalism, instead to make forms that did not “look like either order or disorder.” Stella, for his part, spoke of his desire to make “objects” that were “lean enough” to look at, to “see the whole idea without any confusion…what you see is what you see.”(3)

We can speculate that Kelly was about 10 years ahead of Judd and Stella in this new practice of “object-making.” Stella showed his first “black paintings” in 1959 and Judd’s paintings from that era (circa 1961) invoke vaguely geometric references while challenging the traditional protocol of viewer interaction with “specific objects” in architectural space.(4)

Further observation, and speculation prompted by Buchloh’s essay, has lead me to my theory that Kelly’s move toward “spectatorial participation” was solidified during his mid-1960’s work. For it was in regard of “Red, Yellow, Blue V” (1968), while preparing for a Friday Gallery Talk at the Hirshhorn Museum, that I experienced my own “spectatorial” revelation.

On a perpendicular, head-on approach to “Red, Yellow, Blue V” one is confronted with a three panel presentation of a trapezoid, with the left-side red panel of 89 inches in height, declining left-to-right through the yellow panel to the right-side blue panel, in a dimensional reduction of approximately 40 inches on the extreme right-side. The overall effect is one of a canvas receding from one's perception at the extreme right. This would seem to suggest Kelly’s contradiction of the flatness in painting that Clement Greenberg had rallied to support in his many essays during the 1960’s. Was Kelly staging a protest against Clem’s ideas of flatness by creating a perspectival illusion of three-dimensionality? If Kelly was truly creating objects, not illusions, then what am I looking at?

My revelation occurred when I walked to the right-hand side of the canvas, and in this gallery on the third floor of the Hirshhorn one approaches the actual corner of this particular gallery to achieve the most extreme right-hand vantage from which to view “Red, Yellow, Blue V.” The resultant visual effect I discovered is illustrated by my rather deskilled cell-phone capture reproduced below:

If we can recognize that Kelly’s vision of the alreadymade initiated his unique practice of object-making, leading to his use of flat, industrial color in shapes inspired by perceptual specificity but not relegated to mimeticism, then we might also hypothesize that his trajectory lead him to create situational pieces. “Red, Yellow, Blue V” is certainly a piece that encourages a viewer to move, to investigate different angles from which to regard its presentation. In doing so, one becomes distinctly aware that there are vantage points from which the panels appear to transition from a trapezoid to a rectangularity of form. This revelation rewards the participatory viewer with the discovery that shape, indeed perception itself, is variable to ones’ specific location relative to the painting.

Kelly’s move toward an understanding of the specifics of visual perception, first expressed in his Parisian folly of ’49, might be further evidence of Kelly’s impact on later developments in art. Particular research is needed in the hitherto unexplored relevance that Kelly’s shaped paintings may have had on Minimal artists, especially those later theories of perception as expressed by Robert Morris:

“The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision…one is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”(5)

IMAGES: Red, Yellow, Blue V (1968); collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; bottom image: extreme right-side POV, photo by MCB.


1. Quoted by John Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York, Abrams, 1974, 30.

2. Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. Ellsworth Kelly: Matrix, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2003

3. “Questions to Stella and Judd: Interview by Bruce Glaser” (L. Lippard, ed.), Art News, September, 1966.

4. Press release by The Menil Collection on the occasion of mounting “Donald Judd: Early Work 1955-1968,” curated by Thomas Kellein, co-organized by the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany.

5. Morris, Robert. "Notes on Sculpture, Part II," Artforum, October, 1966.

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