Ellsworth Kelly, bird watcher

Can ornithological practices shed light on the great American abstract artist’s works?
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Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973, oil on canvas, 2 joined panels, 119 x 145 1/2 inches, 302.3 x 369.6 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art. From Ellsworth Kelly
Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973, oil on canvas, 2 joined panels, 119 x 145 1/2 inches, 302.3 x 369.6 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art. From Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edged abstract art seem so simple and divorced from nature, that his work is sometimes regarded as being difficult to appreciate and understand. Yet Kelly himself is quite plain in when describing one formative, natural influence that partly led him to make his art. 

“I remember vividly the first time I saw a Redstart, a small black bird with a few very bright red marks,” the artist explains in the introduction to our new monograph. “I believe my early interest in nature taught me how to ‘see’.”

 

Chatham X: Black Red, 1971, oil on canvas, 2 joined panels, 108 x 95 3/4 inches, 274.3 x 243.2 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. From Ellsworth Kelly
Chatham X: Black Red, 1971, oil on canvas, 2 joined panels, 108 x 95 3/4 inches, 274.3 x 243.2 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. From Ellsworth Kelly

It is an interest shared by the New York Times’ great art critic Holland Cotter, as Cotter explains in a piece for the paper a few days ago. Cotter, like Kelly, took an interest in birds when he was a child, and continued to admire the avian wildlife upon moving to New York City.

Yet, when Cotter took up his childhood interest in adult life, he also had to re-learn some forgotten skills. “I tromped around, like a cellphoner in a museum, seeing little,” he writes, “until I remembered: Stop; let the birds find you.”

 

White Curves, 2001, painted aluminum and stainless steel, 234 x 131 7/8 x 49 1/2 inches, 594.4 x 335 x 125.7 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Fondation Beyeler, Basel. From Ellsworth Kelly
White Curves, 2001, painted aluminum and stainless steel, 234 x 131 7/8 x 49 1/2 inches, 594.4 x 335 x 125.7 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Fondation Beyeler, Basel. From Ellsworth Kelly

The 68-year-old critic recognises there is, of course, much more to this artist than a simple abstract interpretation of natural plumages. Kelly’s work has other distinguishing features, according to Cotter, such as “its radical simplicity, its merger of painting and sculpture, its romance with architecture, [and] its contribution to the history of modernism.”

Yet these features aren’t obvious to the over-eager, questing gallery goer, and are best appreciated by patient, stationary, contemplative viewers. The appreciation of Kelly’s work takes time, “the way bird watching does.”

 

Ellsworth Kelly, Spencertown, NY, 2012. Photo credit: © Jack Shear. From Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly, Spencertown, NY, 2012. Photo credit: © Jack Shear. From Ellsworth Kelly

What sharp insight into both the formation and appreciation of one of America’s greatest living artists. Read the full piece here, and, for more on the life and work of Ellsworth Kelly, buy our magisterial monograph.

 

 

Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly


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