ELLSWORTH KELLY'S name is synonymous with stark geometric sculptures and single-color paintings. Such works grace the Ellsworth Kelly room (Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein share like honors) opened to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the National Gallery's East Wing in Washington. Judging from the work, you might expect Kelly to be an apologist for that deceivingly simple art in which he pulls clean, hard-edge shapes from the cerebrum rather than murking about in the unpredictable and rarely ordered realm of real life. Far from a pedant, Kelly articulates the evolution of his art that has - through forays into nearly every major 20th-century art movement - remained steadfastly committed to hard-edge abstraction.
Speaking by phone from his home in New York, Kelly, an artist who risks traffic citations to muse over the yellow of wildflowers, explains that his work takes its cue from life: the accidental perfection of a shadow across a staircase, the curve of a leg across a carpet. The serendipity comes when his sys-tem of calculation and distillation turns bits of observed reality into independent shapes, by turns playful and controlled as is the artist himself.
You've said your work is not traditional abstraction.
My work isn't interested in a shorthand of the world or in removing itself from the world. I'm after more involvement with the world; I want my work to reinterpret reality and re-present it as new, compelling shape.
What do you mean by that?
In traditional abstract work - actually in all painting - the imagery, shapes, textures painted on a canvas function as the form and the canvas that holds these marks is the ground - both occupy the same space. This figure/ground relationship confines our focus to the inside of the canvas, to what is going on inside the four edges. We notice things like gesture, technique, or the narrative story the images tell. To me, this information is more about the artist than about the art itself. I've always been interested in distilling shape; in a more impersonal abstraction.
On the one hand, you're after impersonal, clear work, but on the other hand you say that the work has to come from what you experience and see in the world. Is that a contradiction?
No, not really. The vision has always been there ... it's really more about a way of seeing. I have always played visual games. When I look at the world I first see what you see - a face, a shadow across a door, for instance. Then that bit of reality becomes a dark edge poised on the brink of a lighter ground and my mind and eye want to play with shapes and color and relationships to get the most potent results possible. In 1953, I was on a train in Zurich watching the fields go by. I began to see the planted areas of land as colored areas interacting with one another and this led to a painting of rich green, dark green, and yellow bands taken directly from fields of lettuce, spinach, and mustard. The final work of art has its own identity and internal balance, but it comes from my subjective experience of the world - from something that catches my eye or intrigues me.
During the height of Abstract Expressionism you were in Europe?
My first art training was at the Pratt Institute in 1943, and then after the war at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1946 to 1948. Artists like Karl Zerbe, Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine taught expressionistic figuration and I worked in that style. In 1948, I went to Paris on the GI Bill and studied at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts. I did what every American in Paris did, I worked in the style of Picasso. The more I saw in Europe, the more I found my own way. I remember riding a bike through the country and being awed by the clarity and economy of Romanesque architecture; there was such power in the precision and measure of all its parts. I also remember a trip in 1952 to Monet's dilapidated studio after he had died. It was in ruin; this was before the art market resurrected him. I remember being so moved by his last works which seemed like huge impersonal statements of shapes compared to his earlier work.
Did European modernism influence your choice to work in abstraction?
In Paris, I visited Brancusi, Vanterloo, Calder, Picabia, and Arp and saw the work of Arp's wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I had begun to use the Dadaist techniques of letting chance dictate the composition of a work. The Surrealists used chance to hook up with the subconscious but I used things like automatic drawing and drawing with my eyes closed as a way to remove my personality and my beliefs and get at shape for its own sake. I began making works inspired by randomly torn and scattered pieces of paper or from squares of colored paper that I arranged arbitrarily.
Do you remember the first totally abstract work you made?
Yes, ``Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris.'' It was two square canvases with wood around them inspired by the two panes of glass that made up a museum window in Paris. It started out as an experiment with the shape of an object but it ended up being about pure shape. When I did that work I realized I was trying to get away from traditional relationships of form and ground, and from traditional painting all together. In ``Window,'' I wasn't trying to make a picture of some-thing, I was trying to free shape from dependence on ground, to have it find its own space.
What kind of work grew out of that piece?
Between 1949 and 1954, I began to do panel paintings, canvases painted solid colors with no interruption, no marks, no brushstrokes or depicted shapes. I wanted these to act like isolated, pure shape and transfer what we typically call the ``background'' from the surface of the canvas to the walls that surrounded the single color shapes. I was trying to create paintings that drew our interest not just inside the canvas but to the relationship of the painting to things outside of it; I wanted the work to interact with the world.
Those ideas were part of the very simple geometric art of Minimalism popularized in the '70s?
Yes, but Minimalism neglected the sheer sensuality and humor that shape playing on shape can hold for us. I'm interested in seeing, in line, color, shape, in translating what I see; those interests are broader than those of Minimal art.
When did you return to the United States?
Abstract Expressionism was in full swing. Did you feel cramped by that?
Not really. From the time I came back until around 1965, I abandoned the single color works and made paintings where a large curve seemed to squeeze the ground to the edge of the canvas. These fit in with the Expressionistic times under the rubric of ``biomorphic'' art. Whatever label they were given, I was and am still interested in getting the most formal and sensual thrust out of the relationship between shape and ground. This logically led me to sculpture where shape is already ``independent'' from its background and you are literally placing one three-dimensional form in relation to others.
It's interesting you should talk about shape on top of shape; so much of your work looks like big, simple cutouts.
From the beginning I've been involved with collage. I admired those of Picasso, Braque, Scwitters, and, of course, Matisse. If you think about it, a Romanesque building is a kind of collage; columns are built one stage on top of another. My very first attraction to cut out shape came from reproductions of Audubon's wonderful birds. I went to see the original drawings and found that often Audubon was dissatisfied with a bird so he cut it out, redid it, and then laid it over the background. It was that sense of literal edge that attracted me to them.
How do the earlier, more complex works relate to the very simple single panel paintings of the last six or seven years?
Being an artist is a little like walking a tightrope, every step here has a reaction there; you investigate this possibility only to return to an earlier one. The more I manipulated figure/ground relationships in my curve works, the more I wanted pure shape to interact with other ``pure'' shape. This led me back to single panel paintings that turn the wall or whole room into the ground. The less cluttered the single form, the more it can react to and interact with everything around it; doorways, ceilings, paneling, other works of art. As for the ``simple'' part, it's a long tour of duty. Sometimes I am asked about a ``simple'' shape in my work and I can only quote Matisse when he said that it took him 40 years to be able to draw just that line.