The End of Ellsworth Kelly

By cat Joneskelly1

Mercy, it was a long run. The legendary Ellsworth Kelly has finally died, at 92, in his home in Spencertown, New York… not far from my studio. God rest his soul. He had studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and in the museums of Europe – mainly France – after WWII. And yet… well let me just be frank here, and come right out and say it. He painted a lot of crap. And he got a fuck ton of money for it.

Ellsworth Kelly has been my poster boy for Dude Art (aka unearned male privilege in the art world) for as long as I can remember. I will truly miss him for that. Fortunately, there are many, many, MANY contenders to take his place in that role.  While real and talented artists can’t get hung in a coffee shop, this guy and his colored triangles have taken up entire walls, whole rooms even, in some of the most prestigious museums in the world, for something like 60 years. Collectors spent small fortunes acquiring his signature “monochromatic” (a $3 art-school word for “hey I painted the whole thing one color”) canvases. You think he could have pulled that off without a penis? Think again.

Let me be clear, too, that when I use the term “dude art,” I’m not talking about just anything done by a male artist. I’m talking about a specific form of privilege, in which men are given a leg up that is not available to women, for work that doesn’t merit the attention, space, and financial reward that it gets. Generally, it is LARGE work, on BIG canvases, or collections intended to take up LOTS of space. It is grandiose and self-important in ways not readily appreciated by someone seeking artistic sensitivity, meaning, or inspiration. Something about the way in which museums and galleries tend to fetishize the pieces they display, making the ordinary and the everyday seem extraordinary and valuable, seems to provide an environment in which this form of side show hucksterism flourishes. Dude art is generally lacking in any real artistic interest or competence, but it is very often surrounded by fluffy prose and artsy jargon about its importance and alleged value. It is art that is motivated by a desire for profit and/or fame more than by any inner vision. And it is always by men. Men are indulged in this form of self promotion in a way that women are not. Women (and men as well) who are far better artists are often ignored in favor of famous dudes who either pretended well – or possibly even believed – that they were great artists when, in fact, they were not.

Dude Art.

Dude Art.

Such brazen self-promotion of the banal, and the ability to leverage that self promotion into admiration and resources, takes balls, apparently.

Fighting words. Yes. And yes, there are entire libraries filled with praise for the “art” of Ellsworth Kelly. I get it. Minimalism. Abstraction. Hard-edge. Color field. Yes. And don’t get me wrong, he was probably a great guy. He donated a lot of money to the school system and the arts in the Berkshires and Columbia County, New York, where he lived. (He could afford to. His career was long and extremely lucrative, with his color swatch paintings fetching a lot of money from collectors for his famous name.) He also happened upon some interesting themes worth exploring… and had he dedicated a few pieces, or Hell, even a few whole collections, to these themes, I could have truly appreciated them. I love delving into minimalism, into abstract art, into new ways of looking at art and the world. I’m not even against color swatches, on principle. (I love Mark Rothko, for example, a man whose work is often weirdly associated with Ellsworth Kelly’s work, even though Rothko is, in my opinion, ten times the artist that Kelly was. Just look at that image here on the right (or below right, depending upon your browser). There is a staggering and visceral difference between these two artists. In Rothko’s work, one senses a real struggle to explore, to create, to assimilate, and to express an inner vision. Rothko had things to say, and struggled for just the right way to say them. His work progressed and changed over time, as he moved from one question or concern to another with his art. I see beauty and value in his abstracted color and form. In short, I see Art. I do not see any of these things when I stand in front of a Kelly painting.)

Mike Rothko, a much more talented artist than Kelly if you ask me, also explored color swatches and geometry. But he did it better.

Mark Rothko, a much more talented artist than Kelly if you ask me, also explored color swatches and geometry. But he did it better.

When I stand in front of Kelly’s work, I am struck by its lack of anything interesting to say. I just see some dude who got too much attention early on for work that might have been an interesting exploration from which to spring forth into more complex, more meaningful modes of expression, but instead became ossified into a “thing.” A gimmick. Kelly’s work was initially important because he fell into what seemed, at first, to be something of an antidote to the prevailing ideas in the art world, something that appeared, initially, to detoxify and to push the boundaries of art. THAT is what made his work important. But he ruined it with repetition, in something of the same way that an unfaithful lover ruins come-on lines with repetition. After awhile, you just aren’t saying anything meaningful at all. And on some level, that shows. Once the newness, the novelty, wore away from Kelly’s work, there was really nothing there at all. It was the novelty that spoke to people a generation ago. With that gone, it had nothing left to say. It isn’t pushing boundaries or making anybody think in new ways anymore. It’s just taking up space. A LOT of space.

So this is a cautionary tale. A story about turning an exploration into a gimmick. And a tale about culturally rewarding such gimmickery – so long as the “artist” has a penis – to the point of meaninglessness.

Ooo. ...deep.

Ooo.
…deep.

Art is about exploration, vision, pushing limits. Sometimes, it’s about shocking and astonishing audiences. Sometimes it’s about bursting forth from smotheringly pervasive ideas, breaking out of the past and into new paradigms, smashing through the barricades of expectation and presenting something new to the world. I think that Kelly did that… once. In its time, the idea of doing an entire exhibition of one-color canvases could have been very interesting. Wringing all emotion and sentimentality out of painting and leaving just a residue of what IS… well that was a new concept. Bringing the idea of the flat-picture frame to canvas, the idea of looking *at* the medium rather than through it… these were interesting ideas to jump into. And many artists have, over the years. Kelly was one of the first to make a famous name for himself around these new concepts, although others were also experimenting with this at the time. He was, let’s be clear, a pioneer in that sense. And… well, then he never progressed. He never took off with these ideas. He never managed to bring forth any new fruit from that tree. (Indeed, he was painting his same old swatches and monochromes right up to the end… ” At least some of the pictures in the show build on ideas Kelly conceived years ago: multiple panels, each painted a single colour…,” said an obituary regarding his last, nearly finished, collection.)

How many things are there to say with a room full of monochromatic rectangles?

How many things are there to say with a room full of monochromatic rectangles?

And that is part of what troubles me about his work. What I object to in Kelly’s art is that it has the stink of hucksterism about it. I can get behind minimalism in art. Abstraction in art, Hell yeah! I can even get behind the occasional color swatch. What I can’t get behind is the lack of essence, the lack of any sense of exploration or progress beyond the initial, scribbling, serendipity that made a name for him…the Barnum and Bailey feel of fakery. (You can almost hear him pondering to himself: “Hell, I’m getting tens of thousands of dollars just for painting a red triangle. Why should I learn to paint anything else?”) Kelly had a career that was both successful and lucrative, not in spite of, but because of a lack of any apparent progress or momentum. He became an iconic name, associated with a peculiar and very limited style, and he made bank off that because collectors like iconic names. (Just ask Michael Flatley, who “paints” absolute BULLSHIT, but makes millions from his drivel anyway because he has a famous name.)

Michael Flatley, Dude Artist Extraordinaire.

Michael Flatley, Dude Artist Extraordinaire.

Kelly took something that might have been a fruitful and interesting pursuit for a month or two… and after getting way too much early attention and reward for it, he turned it into a theme to be reiterated without any new inspiration, for an entire lifetime. He seemed never to have had anything new to add, nothing new to say that he hadn’t already said in those first few canvases… and yet he kept pontificating it from museum walls for the next 60 years. In other words, he took a groundbreaking, foundational idea… and he turned it into nothing more than a shtick. A money-making scheme. A sure bet. A way to ring the bell and get Pavlov’s collectors to drool up attention and resources, every time. His career seems, to me anyway, frozen in early accolades that appear to have stunted its growth. But, like a lot of perpetrators of Dude Art, that didn’t stop him from laughing about the predictable salivation and consistent gullibility of collectors all the way to the bank. (Or, Jesus, maybe he even believed his own press. Who knows.)

Coming up with a bunch of one-color canvases or paintings of bright triangles and rectangles to challenge then-current perceptions and expectations must have been fascinating in its time. I do appreciate that the emergence of the flat-picture plane was a big deal. Thanks to Kelly and others for forcing us to look beyond the edges of previous notions regarding art and representation. Thanks, even, for forcing us to look not just beyond those edges, but literally AT the hard edges of their work.

Entire walls of far too many spaces are taken up by Kelly with this... theme.

Entire walls of far too many spaces are taken up by Kelly with this… theme. He was still reiterating this one at the time of his death, in spite of having festooned whole museums with this giant xylophone theme already, for DECADES.

This new paradigm was a thing for, like 45 minutes. Then what? Well, then some artists went on to build on those concepts, to explore them, to incorporate them into their work while growing and assimilating other ideas and visions. Not Kelly. Kelly went on to repeat and repeat and repeat, ad nauseam, the same thing for the next 45 or 50 years. It seems antithetical to the whole  “art pioneer” idea that made his early career… He spent the rest of his life apparently never progressing again, just because people were willing to give him a lot of money and accolades for that early “pioneering” work.

In this sense, he is the visual equivalent of Mick Jagger. Sure, I like the Stones, but… they’re still singing the same old songs about their dicks 50 years later. Sure, that was new back when. It might even have felt compelling enough to them at 20 that they’d want to sing about their sexual prowess and what turns them on. Ooo. Heavy. For, you know, a 20 year old. But to have a man in his 70s still singing homages to his sex life with all the sophistication of a 20 year old? It makes one wonder… hasn’t anything else happened in your life since then, in all these years, to fill that concept out a little? To add dimension and gravity and meaning to your world? To give you something new to say that we might actually find compelling, rather than the same old repetitious ploy that isn’t saying anything new to anyone anymore, and certainly can’t be reflecting a true sense of inner vision at this point? Kelly might not actually be painting images of his dick, but arguably, that could be a more compelling subject than countless walls and 60 years of repetitious, garishly colored shapes.

Perhaps it was monetary reward that set Kelly in stone. Who knows, he might have moved on to other explorations, real visions, new ways of observing and expressing himself, had he not been fetching so much attention and succor for rectangles and triangle swatches. But I never can get past the suspicion, when I stare into the abyss of his monochromes and swatches, that he really wasn’t capable of doing more.

That, too, is one of my objections to his work. In fact, it is an objection that I have to a lot of Dude Art. I’m not sure how to adequately express this sense, because it gets dangerously close to the unanswerable “What Is Art” question. It also implies a kind of art hierarchy that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with perpetuating. But it is a thing I have noticed that there are a lot of male artists out there, who have gotten a lot of attention and reward for their work, who don’t seem to be very, well, artistically competent. Is it possible that Kelly painted squares and colored entire canvases with nothing but a single color, not because he was exploring an inner vision, but rather just because he couldn’t DO anything else?

One of Kelly's drawings. Mmmm.

One of Kelly’s drawings. Mmmm.

What if some real art had gone here?

What if some real art had gone here?

This is pure speculation, of course. Maybe there are pieces out there that demonstrate that he could, in fact, express himself competently through his art. Maybe I just haven’t seen them yet. (Please, if you know of such work, drop me a line.) But I’ve spent quite some time trying to mine his work for something that interests me, and I have never found it. His sketches and drawings are remarkable to me in their absolute lack of any meaningful or well-rendered images. His paintings are… well they are what they are.

Other painters have explored themes of simplicity and abstraction, but one is not troubled by a sense that they did it because it was all they were capable of doing, rather than that they did it because it was actually what they were trying to say. Rothko, for example, had a long and varied career, painting in many different styles, and demonstrating a real and tangible talent. The same does not seem to be true of Kelly.

“Four Oranges,” a drawing by Ellsworth Kelly.

Kelly has certainly dressed his style up in glorious, artsy, and grandiose words of justification – just as most perpetrators of Dude Art have done. And I even like a lot of those words. I like that he gained inspiration from shadows and from the spaces between architectural elements. I like a lot of the things he, and people who appreciate him, have said about his works. Things like this, for instance:

“Kelly intends for viewers to experience his artwork with instinctive, physical responses to the work’s structure, color, and surrounding space rather than with contextual or interpretive analysis. He encourages a kind of silent encounter, or bodily participation by the viewer with the artwork, chiefly by presenting bold and contrasting colors free of gestural brushstrokes or recognizable imagery, panels protruding gracefully from the wall, and irregular forms inhabiting space as confidently as the viewer before them.”

Or these words, which he spoke to the New York Times in 1996:

““I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures. I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me.”

He also once said, “I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges and mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness.”

Doesn’t that sound interesting? It’s a thing with dudes who make a name for themselves despite an apparent lack of talent, that they are very good at shameless self-promotion, and great with flowery justifications for their work. Their medium is confidence, rather than competence. (It might be appropriate to mention, here, that the word “con,” as in “con man,” comes from the word “confidence.”) It’s also a thing with art critics that they often buy into this kind of self-promotion when someone is famous or especially jargony in their verbosity. (But again, only men ever really get to pull this trick off. Try it without a penis, and suddenly the emperor has no clothes.)

I once knew a boy like this. I’ll call him “Jim.” He was, probably still is, a painter… and his paintings bask in the long tradition of dude art, in that they are mostly all in his head, commanding great and convoluted word space and wall space, but lacking in any visual interest at all. He would stand me before his giant canvases (and this, too, is a dude art feature – they are always GIANT canvases), covered in house paint and banality, and then launch into a colorful explanation of the work, all loaded with art school jargon and theoretical prose. A lot of inside jokes to himself, little homages to various artists and movements, little allusions to better artists than himself or to concepts he considered obscure and artsy enough to render his paintings “cool” with their inclusion. It sounded awesome. It looked like Hell. (And not in a good or compelling way.)

There is an enormous amount of privilege in this kind of theoretical “art.” It isn’t just the obvious male privilege I have already noted. There is also a slag heap of classism to be teased out. Only someone who has the privilege of going to art school can make use of all that pedantic theoretical jargon to turn a sow’s ear like that into a silk purse full of collector’s dollars. This same boy, who lived in an art cooperative where I had a studio, once told me why another artist, I’ll call him “Jose,” who also lived in that same cooperative was “no good.” Jim was talking about a man who, as a person, I did not like very much. In fact, Jose and I had a long-standing feud, probably because we were both very passionate about our work, both a little crazy, and both of us can be driven to some arrogance about our work. So we tangled some, and I never liked him much. But his art? Jose might have been an asshole, but he was also a passionate and talented artist. No one could seriously dispute that. No one but Jim.

“He says he’s an ‘outsider,'” said Jim derisively. “He even brags about that. If he knew anything about art history, he would know that’s nothing to brag about.” He then added, “He has no concept of art history after WWII. He has no theory.” Indeed, Jose did not have a lot of theory. What he had, was talent. Vision. Creativity. Art. Jose could paint something, and you could see that it was art. You did not have to have it explained to you with flowery prose. It existed of its own accord, in a realm readily accessed and appreciated by a person standing before the work itself. It did not require the artist to tell you how and why it merited attention. Love it or hate it, Jose’s work is art. You can feel it. Jim’s work is not. And you can feel that, too. It exists in his mind in a way that it is not present on the canvas. The words about it are more important than the work itself. Like Ellswoth Kelly’s work.

So there, again, I am stepping into the goo of What Is Art. Well if I’m going there, let me just jump in. To recognize something as art, as having artistic value or merit, one does not need to like it. One needs to feel it. One needs to be moved by it in some way. To be enlightened. One can dislike the work, the style, even the artist, but one can usually feel art. And this is where Ellsworth and I have some dialogue. Because I feel a sense of artistic challenge, of vision, when I look at Kelly’s beginnings rather than his overall trajectory, the long arch of his portfolio. He certainly gave the world something to think about… for about a minute and a half. And then, he just kept giving them poultry digest of the same thing for the rest of the century. Something about art requires an inner vision. A struggle to express something. An alchemy between the environment of the artist, and the inner world of the artist, linked to that of the witness, the audience. It requires something new to say. I do not get a sense of that with any of his work beyond his first few years.

I don't like it... but is it art?

I don’t like it… but is it art?

There’s something laudable in that, too… at least for a minute. Part of Kelly’s magic, the strange fiber that kept critics wound to him for all those years despite having nothing new to say for most of his life, was the lack of feeling to his work. Simple, direct, and unsentimental, it flew in the face of ideas about sentimentality and expression. As others have noted, it kicked away whole archetypes regarding the wild-eyed, struggling artist, heroically fighting to bring a personally meaningful vision out to the world. It pointed to the surface of the work itself, to the edges and colors of simplified and abstracted forms, rather than pointing through the image to something else, the way other artists were doing at the time. There was certainly some artistic merit in the presentation of that discovery to the public back in the mid 20th century, that we could break away all context and continuity and imagination from a canvas and simply look at a swatch of color. But once that statement was made… why make it again? And again… and again… and again… and again?

Artists often struggle to find just the right way to express something. Like Monet’s lily ponds, Kahlo’s self portraits, or Van Gogh’s repetitions, an artist might paint the same thing again and again to tease out the vision that they have. It’s not easy to paint – it is a communion between artist, world, and canvas, and the canvas and paint often have new ideas that the artist did not initially consider. Great art is always a collaboration between artist and medium. So it is not the fact of repetition that bothers me in Kelly’s work, it’s the lack of anything else to say. “Look. A rectangle.” There, you have said it. And it was worth saying. But now… say something else. Add something. Or just sit down and give the wall space to someone else.

This is the thing that Dude art dudes never do. They never give up the space, whether they have anything to say there or not. Whether it’s Mick’s dick in the microphone or Kelly’s swatches on the walls, they cling to the unearned privilege of their command of cultural space, and we let them – often at the expense of other, better, more talented, more interesting artists.

And THAT, I think, is the thing that bothers me the most. Dude art makes a mockery of real artistic struggle, and takes space and resources away from real artists and real artistic talent. In a sense, perhaps, it is an art form all its own, to be appreciated in the same way that one can appreciate most of the comic genius and performance art of Andy Kauffman – an elaborate inside joke upon the spectators themselves, a secret smack of contempt for the artist’s own audience. In that case, I hope Ellsworth Kelly got a good laugh. Me? I’m just not feeling the love.

RIP Ellsworth Kelly.

RIP Ellsworth Kelly.

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