Painting of the Day

6 Feb

Ellsworth Kelly. Colors for a Large Wall. 1951

Colors for a Large Wall. by Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923). Oil on canvas, 1951. Belongs to MoMA.

Notes from

Kelly arranged the sixty–four square panels of the grid in an arbitrary sequence, likening his method to the “the work of a bricklayer.” Using squares of commercial colored paper left over from a previous series of collages, he first made a study for Colors for a Large Wall. Then he precisely matched the hues of the papers with oil paint, and arranged the final, full–size panels in strict adherence to the paper study.

“I have never been interested in painterliness,” Kelly has said, using painterliness to mean “a very personal handwriting, putting marks on a canvas.” There is no personal handwriting, nor even any marks as such, in Colors for a Large Wall, which comprises sixty-four abutting canvases, each the same size (a fraction under a foot square) and each painted a single color. Not even the colors themselves, or their position in relation to each other, could be called personal; Kelly derived them from commercial colored papers, and their sequence is arbitrary. Believing that “the work of an ordinary bricklayer is more valid than the artwork of all but a very few artists,” he fused methodical procedure and a kind of apollonian detachment into a compositional principle.

As a serial, modular accumulation of objects simultaneously separate and alike, Colors for a Large Wall anticipated the Minimalism of the 1960s, but it is unlike Minimalism in the systematic randomness of its arrangement, which is founded on chance. Produced at the height of Abstract Expressionism (but quite independently of it, since Kelly had left New York for Paris), the work also has that art’s mural scale, and Kelly thought deeply about the relationship of painting to architecture; but few Abstract Expressionists could have said, as he has, “I want to eliminate the ‘I made this’ from my work.”

Colors For A Large Wall is the painting that Ellsworth Kelly considered his masterpiece from the few years that he spent in France in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a young American on the GI Bill. The way this painting came about has its origin in a set of eight collages that Kelly called Spectrum Colors Arranged By Chance.

For those, he bought huge supplies of the colored adhesive paper that you could buy in art supply stores in Paris. He made these collages, randomly distributing the eighteen colors according to mathematical systems that he devised for each one. And then when all of those collages were finished he had some leftover squares.

He decided to make a couple of small collages with those leftover squares to make a couple of small collages, including the one that we see on the wall that’s just eight squares across and eight squares down. As you can see, there’s a lot of white because Kelly didn’t have all that many color squares left. He said it perplexed him, and in the end, he decided he was going to make a painting and made Colors For A Large Wall.

And what you have is a very radical painting for 1951. The approach that Kelly took in this painting, of letting color fall where it may, was something that was very liberating for him. And that an artist could work with color with a freedom and almost with a nonchalance and still end up with something beautiful. 

My comments:

I love how Kelly combined the chance and freedom in the process of Abstract Expressionism with the sleek, detached, unemotional tone of Minimalism. My art professor said that my branch shadow drawing reminded him of Ellsworth Kelly, and if he meant for its “sophistication,” which is the word he used, I can see what he meant.

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