Figure 1. Ellsworth Kelly, Smoke from Chimneys, Automatic Drawing from Rue de Blainville, 1950
Graphite on paper, 19 3/4 x 25 5/8 inches (50.2 x 65.1 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, 2012
© Ellsworth Kelly
by Matthew Bailey
In this loose, organic drawing of an abstracted scene of Paris, Ellsworth Kelly used the sparest of freehand notations to register the side or corner of a building, the slant and texture of a roof, and a curling wisp of smoke. Smoke from Chimneys, Automatic Drawing from Rue de Blainville (1950; fig. 1) is one of a series of drawings that Kelly executed while living in France from 1948 to 1954, in which the young artist experimented broadly with ways to “get the personality out of painting . . . to do paintings that were anonymous.”1 Employing a variety of chance procedures at this early stage in his career, Kelly embraced what the art historian Yve-Alain Bois has called a strategy of the “non-compositional.”2 Kelly’s turn toward the non-compositional was aimed at circumventing subjective expression and approaches to compositional organization that reflected the controlling will of the artist.
To create Smoke from Chimneys, Kelly enacted his own twist on the methods of Surrealist automatism, to which he had been exposed in 1949. In lieu of the Surrealist practice of relinquishing rational control in favor of unconscious processes, he instead drew scenes or objects from memory or worked “blind”—by drawing without looking at his support, with his eyes closed, or even while blindfolded.3 In this work it is likely that the artist transcribed an observed scene without looking at the paper and without monitoring his progress. This mode of working was a direct attack on conscious “motor control,” as Bois notes.4 Kelly’s method is revealed here in the way lines and forms haphazardly overlap and intersect, presenting a jumbled mass of curvilinear scribbles and irregular rectilinear contours that lose their representational function. At the same time, the drawing inevitably retains a sense of the impulse toward rational composition that the artist wished to purge from his work, a problem of which he was aware.
The composition is symmetrically centered on the paper, exhibiting overall a balanced organization of line and form. Moreover, the illusionistic nature of the imagery and the hint of spatial recession—suggested by the perspectival lines and overlapping shapes that recede into the background—also reveal a certain retention of control. As Bois has said of Kelly’s work in this series, “with this move a point of view is implied, and thus a subjective agency.”5 Plagued by the resurgence of rational control and subjective choice in automatic drawings such as this one, Kelly thereafter turned to more systematic strategies of chance, reduction, and serialization—including the creation of collages through random numerical drawings, the execution of monochromatic paintings, the use of grids, and the repetition of form—in an attempt to repress his own artistic agency.
1. Ellsworth Kelly, “Interview: Ellsworth Kelly Talks with Paul Cummings,” Drawing 8 (September–October 1991), quoted in Pamela Lee and Christine Mehring, Drawing Is Another Kind of Language: Recent American Drawings from a New York Private Collection (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997), 98.
2. Yve-Alain Bois, “Ellsworth Kelly in France: Anti-Composition in Its Many Guises,” in Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948–1954, ed. Yve-Alain Bois, Jack Cowart, and Alfred Pacquement (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1992), 9–36.
3. Bois, “Ellsworth Kelly in France,” 24–25; Bois, “Kelly’s Trouvailles: Findings in France,” in Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948–1955 (Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums; Winterthur, Switzerland: Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1999), 23.
4. Bois, “Kelly’s Trouvailles,” 23.
5. Ibid., 19.
Matthew Bailey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology and a Lynn Cooper Harvey Fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. A former Henry Luce/American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Fellow in American Art, he has also received a Tyson Scholar Fellowship from the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art for fall 2012. His dissertation, Turbulent Bodies: Disruptive Materiality in American Painting, 1880–1940, historicizes the physical act of painting by select American artists by examining paint in terms of material culture and painting itself as a phenomenal process, shaped by evolving attitudes towards the material world and somatic experience.
Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923, Newburgh, New York) is regarded as one of the most important abstract painters, sculptors and printmakers working today. Spanning six decades, his career is marked by the independent route his art has taken from any formal school or art movement and by his innovative contribution to 20th century painting and sculpture. Following two years of studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Kelly served in the Army during World War II from 1943 to 1945, and then resumed his education at the Boston Museum School. He returned to Paris in 1948 under the G.I. Bill and enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts where he lived and studied for six years. Kelly’s first one-man exhibition was at the Galerie Arnaud in Paris in 1951. In recognition of his lifetime achievements and contributions Kelly has been promoted to Officier of the French Legion by the French Consulate. His first major retrospective exhibition was Ellsworth Kelly at The Museum of Modern Art in 1973, followed by Ellsworth Kelly: Recent Paintings and Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979, Ellsworth Kelly Sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982, and Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1996. Kelly’s works have been exhibited in conjunction with artists such as Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Monet and Abstraction at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid in 2009, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres / Ellsworth Kelly at the Villa Medici’s Académie de France in Rome in 2010, and Malevich and the American Legacy at Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2011. Kelly’s works are featured in Fresh Window: The Window in Art since Matisse and Duchamp at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf in 2012. Major exhibitions featuring works on paper include Ellsworth Kelly Works on Paper at the Fort Worth Art Museum in 1987, Ellsworth Kelly – The Early Drawings 1948-1955 at Harvard University Art Museum in 1999, and Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings in the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich in 2011, and Louisiana Museum, Denmark and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2012. Recent solo exhibitions include Ellsworth Kelly: Wood Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ellsworth Kelly Black and White at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Museum Wiesbaden. Matthew Marks Gallery Los Angeles inaugural exhibition in early 2012 featured a sculpture commission for the facade of the new building as well as paintings, sculptures and drawings. Ellsworth Kelly Sculpture, a selection of totems and sculpture models, shows at the Morgan Library and Museum. He lives and works in upstate New York.