“Goofing around becomes him”: The Works-on-Paper of Ellsworth Kelly

Installation of Tablet 1949-1973 at The Drawing Center

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This article originally appeared in the July 1, 2002 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Ellsworth Kelly; Plant Drawings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 3).

An artist may save every scrap of paper he’s ever doodled on, but does that mean they’re worth looking at? The ephemera culled from the flat files of the abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, currently the subject of the exhibition Tablet 1949-1973, now at the Drawing Center, are worth looking at, although one should bear in mind that they function less as ends than as means.

Each of the 188 scribbles, scrabbles and sketches on view offers evidence of an eye ever attuned to visual stimuli. Mr. Kelly takes inspiration where he finds it: from a sno-cone wrapper to a photograph of sailboats to a scrap of canvas riddled with blotches. He also sketches upon whatever surface is at hand–a gallery announcement from Julian Levy, a dinner invitation from Sidney Janis or a telegram from Mom. These notations aren’t much more than throwaways, but they are free-flowing and inquisitive, foolhardy and funny. They are, in short, everything Mr. Kelly’s art–his real art, one wants to say–is not.

Installation of Tablet 1949-1973 at The Drawing Center

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As someone who finds Mr. Kelly’s real art beautiful and boring, I had a fine old time at the Drawing Center. It’s refreshing to see this most controlling of hedonists let down his hair; goofing around becomes him. One does, however, wonder about the hubris entailed in such an everything-but-the- kitchen-sink venture. Only an artist convinced of his Midas touch would dare such a thing.

Still, there are signs that Mr. Kelly doesn’t take himself too seriously. The show’s nonhierarchical installation–two rows of identically scaled frames ring the gallery without pause for emphasis–establishes, albeit in a back-handed manner, that this is an artist for whom aesthetic discrimination is paramount. Wise to the slim aesthetic weight his doodles carry, Mr. Kelly makes no distinctions here. The irony is that his doodles come closer to achieving the vitality we expect from art than his museum-ready masterworks. Is it unjust to claim that Tablet 1949-1973 is all the Ellsworth Kelly any reasonable person should ever need? I don’t think so.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Additional thoughts on the art of Ellsworth Kelly can be found here.

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