“In October of 1949, at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, I noticed the large windows between the paintings interested me more than the art exhibited. 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; it all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched planes, lines of a roadmap, the shape of a scarf on a woman's head, a fragment of Le Corbusier's Swiss Pavilion, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same, anything goes. At that time I wrote: 'Everything is beautiful but that which man tries intentionally to make beautiful.' The work of an ordinary bricklayer is more valid than the artwork of all but a very few artists."
- - Ellsworth Kelly (1974)
“It would thus be futile to prove that Kelly could not have known Mondrian's checkerboard paintings from 1919 as precedents for his own rigorous mapping of the pictorial surface. Or that Kelly could not have known Alexandr Rodchenko's Red Yellow Blue triptych from 1921 as a precedent for his own preoccupation with the primaries starting in 1951.
In 1949, painting appeared to Kelly as both always already defined and, paradoxically, as totally open..[..]..the radiant intelligence of his paintings originated first of all in his uncanny ability to figure these dialectical oppositions..[..]..between the historically available and the historically prohibited options for articulating aesthetic experience.
..the condition of painting as a mere object whose meaning and value are constituted only within the architectural and discursive framework of the museum..[..]..As much as abstraction had deconstructed the dialectics of figure and ground, most of these adventures still took place within the prescribed rectangularity of the support..[..]..they presume a universal subject, a neutral spectator, unchanging in his demands for painterly plenitude, conceiving of the object of painting (and of color in particular) as a perpetually renewable and available resource of sensuous (and substitutional) gratification. As though color, space, and line were trans-historical phenomena, lending themselves thereby to the most banal definition (and critique) of abstraction, namely that it provides the extraction of aesthetic pleasure at the cost of the disavowal of the actual conditions that govern experience and perception at large..[..]..Kelly's disenchanted abstraction had to retreat into those forms of painting and relief that negate access to spatial or chromatic plenitude through a radical re-conception of drawing, design, and color. Only then could his work respond to abstraction's increasingly debased deployment in commercial design culture, where the Utopian aspirations of the avant-garde had been conscripted into the rising cult of logo and product design, pressing every curve and color into the service of corporate identity and brand-name recognition.
Abstraction in 1951 gained its historical significance and credibility precisely to the degree that it succeeded in identifying the available options for abstraction and either continued along the lines that the avant-garde had formulated in the prewar period (e.g. techno-scientistic models, socialist-utopian models, spiritual-transcendental models) or recognized that none of these models were actually available any longer.
Abstract painting as a space and perceptual act of an emancipated subjectivity had vanished altogether, and that painting now could only aspire to perform acts of critical intervention within the ever expanding structures of institutional power.
What would it be like to imagine color as an operation in an interstitial space, as a game between oppositional conceptions of color?
What we seem to witness then is the death of a contemplative viewer engaged in the work's sensuous enchantment and the birth of the participatory spectator."
Excerpts from Ellsworth Kelly Matrix by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, published by Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2003.
TOMORROW, OCTOBER 25, 2013: HIRSHHORN MUSEUM FRIDAY GALLERY TALK: MCB ON KELLY’S RED YELLOW BLUE V; 12:30 PM; MEET AT THE INFORMATION DESK.
IMAGE: Red, Yellow, Blue V (1968); collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.