Unencumbered by the constantly shifting planes of contemporary art and dedicated to a singular vision, Ellsworth Kelly dismantled patterns of seeing to produce abstract, yet deeply meditative, canvases. A consummate example of his unique vision is Red White, a painting which marks the intersection between Kelly’s earlier innovations in conveying form, and his later forays into large-scale, monochromatic sculptural panels. Pulsing with the tensile strength of a perfectly executed line set against a vibrant pool of color, this work expands on the spatial ambiguities introduced by the Abstract Expressionists a generation earlier, and is a pristine marriage of Kelly’s exceptional way of seeing and the deep theoretical base that underlines much of his work, together with the possibility of finding joy in the nuances of the everyday.
In a twist on earlier abstractions, Red White replaces stark black with an intense red as a contrast to pure, luminescent white. The rolling curves of color gracefully reach the canvas’s far left edge exactly at the turning edge, evidence of Kelly’s exceptional compositional skill. Instead of stretching a finished canvas over wooden supports after painting, Kelly crafted each individual stretcher to perfectly fit specifications derived from preparatory sketches. Thus, the disparate materials composing the final work are expertly fused together in a holistic construction unique to Red White, rendering the dignified composition a genius study in balance and precision.
Kelly’s keen eye developed early. “I remember that when I was about ten or twelve years old I was ill and fainted,” he recalled. “And when I came to, my head was upside down. I looked at the room upside down, and for a brief moment I couldn’t understand anything until my mind realized that I was upside down and I righted myself. But for the moment that I didn’t know where I was, it was fascinating. It was like a wonderful world because I didn’t know where I was. And I’ve always remembered that vision” (E. Kelly, quoted in D. Hickey, “The Literal Prophecies of Ellsworth Kelly,” in Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue – Paintings and Studies, 1958-1965, exh. cat. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2002, p. 26). Such a vision propelled Kelly through a year of study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and back to Europe, where glimpses of Paris through windows and puddles coalesced into the aesthetic foundation for his burgeoning practice. Rather than be overwhelmed by historical grandeur of the city, Kelly was more taken with the everyday structures supporting these legendary cities. Sketches from a Metro station grille, memories of warped shadows, and photographs of zigzagging chimney pipes provided ammunition for Kelly’s imagination, which in turn fired back stripped-down versions of real life. Thus, his compositions are not so much developed abstractions as they are reduced figurations, tearing away fanciful trappings to reveal the essence of a perceived thing. Each work resolves into a mere “fragment of the world, to compete with other fragments” (E. Kelly, quoted in M. Grynsztejn, “Clear-Cut: The Art of Ellsworth Kelly,” Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 11).
In this way, Kelly fashioned himself less a creator and more an observer—one who recognized art in the environment and presented it for others to examine: “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 already, and I could take from everything; it all belonged to me” (E. Kelly, quoted in J. Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York, 1971, p. 28). Though his brilliantly painted canvases appear to contradict Marcel Duchamp’s critical paradigm, Kelly in fact shares Duchamp’s aspiration to challenge traditional notions of perception by presenting the found subject, rather than the designed one. Though Kelly’s forms feel familiar, they elude identification; though his colors seem elementary, they bask in a fullness all their own. Red White, then, is a readymade for today—a transposition of quotidian surroundings into a new space, cultivated from life and refined for contemplation.
Such sophistication results from intentional considerations of color and contour. Paired with white to tamper their vibrancy, Kelly’s layers of paint become objects unto themselves. Color is not simply decoration, but an integral element of the work: “Once, in France, the artist observed a young boy pointing at each component of a panel painting and saying the name of its color. This straightforward gesture, Kelly realized, elegantly encapsulated his basic goal of letting colors assume their most apt forms” (T. Kamps, “Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue,” Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue – Paintings and Studies, 1958-1965, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2002, p. 16). To name is to assert presence; thus, a Kelly color enjoys corporeal status uninhibited by formal concerns. In the present work, rich red gently abuts soft white, obscuring clear figure/ground relationships so that the colors coexist, hues living in harmony, while ensconced in tender line.
Neither a constraining force, nor permeable boundary, Kelly’s line delicately holds his forms in place, perched on the precise edge of his canvas without spilling over. Often labeled along with other abstract artists of his generation, Kelly sought instead to defy classification, especially in his exploration of the world beyond the canvas. The organic curves of Red White compel the viewer to mentally complete the figure’s right side, but Kelly explicitly confines the form to the pictorial field by leaving the sides of the stretcher white. Thus, the viewer balances precariously between the folding dimensions of a world in which the shape continues, and the one in which it ends. Where Jackson Pollock was concerned with establishing an environment beyond the scope of his painting, Kelly was content to leave the viewer pondering an ambiguity of infinite possibilities. Offering a fresh vision of a stagnant world, Kelly’s Red White magnifies the overlooked ordinary to rescue shards of unseen beauty, carving a timeless niche for both itself and its indomitable creator.