Conquering by colour


Now aged 87, American artist Ellsworth Kelly is working as hard as ever. With an exhibition of his drawings now in Dublin, he talks to BELINDA McKEONabout sticking with his own vision in a career spanning six decades

IT’S ARMORY WEEK in New York – the week of the city’s biggest art fair, which sets some 50,000 art-world insiders on a non-stop gallery crawl – so if you’re looking for some quiet time with an artwork anywhere around Chelsea, you may be out of luck. Then again, if the artwork happens to be one of your own, and if you happen to be one of the most important figures in the history of modern American painting, you’ll probably be able to grab a moment.

Ellsworth Kelly is doing just that. In a back room in the Matthew Marks Gallery on West 24th Street, he’s sitting at a table underneath two of his works from the gallery’s collection, having a cup of tea. The pieces are not instantly recognisable as Kelly’s – no blocks of bright colour, no linear pivots, none of the hyperchromatic test cards which have marched across gallery walls since Kelly first developed his distinctive brand of abstraction, sometimes called hard-edged, sometimes called geometric, sometimes grouped with minimalism and Pop Art (all terms, incidentally, which Kelly himself rejects). Rather, these pieces are delicate, almost whisper-light line drawings of plants in graphite and ink. But they’re his.

And that they so instantly subvert expectations makes perfect sense. Because it was by just such a subversion that Kelly, as a young artist in this city more than 50 years ago, began to blaze his own trail.

The artist, who turns 87 this year, remembers vividly the years when he returned to live in New York after a post-war spell – which was for him also a post-army spell – in Paris. Paris, part of the European avant-garde which many of his American peers were challenging and rejecting, had been a rich world unto itself for Kelly – the world of Calder and Brancusi, of Giacometti and Miró, of Braque and Picasso – in which he searched for his own version of abstraction. He became an artist of geometries, of vibrant colour, of almost playful work with panels and stark work with reliefs. And when he ran out of money and arrived back in New York, in 1954, to find the city under the occupation of Abstract Expressionism, Kelly watched, for a while, the work of de Kooning and his contemporaries from a distance.

“Living in Paris, I didn’t really know what had been happening in New York,” he says now. “And when I came back, I thought, oh – gesture. A lot of gesture here. Which is something I felt I’d done in my earlier work. But this time, I had to, I ignored it.”

He did more than ignore it; he began to move beyond it, taking that language of abstraction he had forged for himself in Paris and deepening it, at times softening it, introducing curves and making bold statements with the colour spectrum. In a set of lofts at the tip of Manhattan, he became part of the next generation as it emerged, sharing space with artists such as Bob Indiana and Agnes Martin, and having Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as neighbours.

When he returned to New York in the 1950s, much of the work Kelly made, at first, as he found his way more fully into his own language, was in the form not of paintings but of drawings – works on paper in ink, pencil and gouache, which he created as a way of working out where he wanted to go on a larger scale. The drawings pointed firmly to the European context in which he had just been immersed; in their light, in their colours, in their softness – almost a gentleness – they are far from the muscle and brashness of the works being produced around Kelly at the time in New York. They play with colour and form, and with what happens when you juxtapose these things in certain unexpected – maybe even, at first blush, unwise – ways. And they say a great deal about the painter that Ellsworth Kelly would become.

NOW, AN EXHIBITIONof 23 of these drawings from Kelly’s first years in New York is coming to Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (in association with the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which curated and hosted the exhibition earlier this year). The Hugh Lane has an existing association with Kelly’s work, having secured the first of his paintings for a public collection in Ireland when it acquired Black Relief over Yellow and Orange(2004) in 2006. It’s not clear from looking at the works on paper whether that painting emerged directly from any one of them, but as Ellsworth talks about the drawings and about the ways in which they inspired later works, it seems that the lines of influence were not always transparent or direct. A drawing such as Study for Black Curvesmay, indeed, have given rise to the painting Black Curves, but in other instances a curve, a panel, a colour palette or a relief will have gone through intense rethinking and reshaping before emerging on a canvas or in a shape of steel.

Kelly explains how these drawings – which were very much working drawings for paintings and sculptures not yet made, and which he had never intended to sell – emerged out of a mixture of what he was seeing around him in New York and what he had brought with him from Paris.

“In New York, it was a completely new atmosphere for me,” he says. “I remember seeing these bright yellow and red taxi cabs. And then I kept seeing things I’d been seeing in Europe, but in Europe they’d been different – the buildings, for example.”

So some of the drawings, he says, were a “follow-through” from what he’d been doing in Europe – particularly those involving colours in panels – and some, especially those working with linear form, were breaking newer ground for him. And they carried him towards work which was in itself groundbreaking, but not immediately well-received.

Kelly had his first solo show in Manhattan in 1956, and took part, along with Frank Stella, in Moma’s Sixteen Americansshow in 1959. He remembers the response to his early shows as being less than eager from some quarters. “I felt that people were surprised and not necessarily approving of what I was doing,” he says. He had taken back from Europe “a sort of a different colour sense”, influenced by his study of Kandinsky and Matisse, and also of Fernand Léger. “And the Abstract Expressionists, they used colour of course, but they were mixing it, and I was using strong colour in what I call a spectral sense. Using large areas of colour. But I had to continue what I started.”

KELLY IS GENEROUSin interview, but at one point he apologises, saying he is “not very good” at talking about how he works, or why. “It seems I have a need for colour, probably,” he adds, and then, as if to try to state his process and his drive as simply as possible, “and in a way to conquer the space of the wall.”

But let’s talk about something else for a while, he says, and he asks if I’ve seen the new Sam Shepard work currently playing in the city, Ages of the Moon. “What did the Irish make of those very American characters?” he wants to know, when I mention that the production originally came from the Abbey Theatre.

He recalls a trip to Dublin in 1982, when he was a guest at the same Guinness-sponsored exhibition as Joseph Beuys. “He was very anxious for the press to arrive, I remember,” says Kelly. “And when I introduced myself, he said, ‘Oh, you’re the man from Alaska’.”

It’s possible that Beuys had mistaken him for someone else, though Kelly has another possible reason. “Maybe he felt my paintings were on the cold side?” he says, smiling almost bashfully.

Kelly is still remarkably prolific, and works steadily up at his studio in Spencertown, three hours upstate from the city, where he has lived since 1970. “Things have been coming along pretty well,” he says. He’ll have shows in Boston and Rome in 2011. He couldn’t live in New York any more, he says, just going there a couple of times a month “is like being assaulted by all the energy”. He looks back on his time in that downtown community in the 1950s and 1960s with fondness but also with something like relief.

“There was too much socialising,” he says. “It just seemed like I wasn’t working.” And he has to be working, he says, all the time. “I’m always sort of involved in the action of painting. That’s what I’m about, and I only feel okay when I’m working. Or I feel better than okay. I mean, life is what you do with it.”

He talks for a moment about the US, about how it is now – “the government going through such a tough time of it, and our president trying to do things, and they won’t let him” – and he sighs. “And I begin thinking, what does my painting have to do with it? Or what should I be thinking about?”

But ultimately, what Kelly thinks about, and what he knows he should be thinking about, is his art. He looks up at his drawings on the wall – a leaf bending over a stem, a petal seeming to shiver in upon itself. And immediately he’s deep into a consideration of what is “real” enough – or of what is “too real” – to make its way into a painting rather than into a drawing like this; the turn of a leaf, for one thing, is “too real”. But the use of separate panels for separate colours and forms, he says, renders those things “more real” than they would be simply merged on a single canvas. They become tangible, they become impossible to ignore. They acquire an urgency, an arresting quality, all their own. But there’s always one more reality to craft, you sense; always one more marriage of colour and form to get just right. And so Ellsworth Kelly will keep going. More than 50 years on, the skills he taught himself in these drawings in the Hugh Lane are skills he’s honing still.

Ellsworth Kelly: Drawings 1954-62is at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane until June 20