Book Review Ellsworth Kelly, Photographs. By Ellsworth Kelly Reviewed by George Slade "Photographic syntax helps him conceive the forms of his work. Something intrinsically photographic, the way photography and its optics compress the three-dimensional world into a planar space, suffuses Kelly’s creative process."
Reviewed by George Slade
Ellsworth Kelly, Photographs.
Photographs by Ellsworth Kelly.
Aperture, New York, USA, 2016. 92 pp., 42 black-and-white illustrations, 9½x10½".
Funny, isn’t it, how infrequently we encounter publications addressing the paintings, sculptures, or print-work of well-known photographers? Whereas over time there’s been no shortage of books attending to the photographic efforts of painters, sculptors, and printers. Could this be one of those insidious, veiled comments about how “easy” and “democratic” this medium is?
Please don’t misunderstand; I do think it’s interesting to encounter a visual artist’s more simplified encounters with the material world. Some, like Robert Rauschenberg, demonstrate a very thorough, robust relationship with photography, and are more interesting than others. Let’s just be grateful that they all want to be part of our world; that’s some form of flattery, as I recall.
In most cases, my feeling is that not-primarily-photographic artists’ photographs either present themselves as random yet somehow relevant expressions of a signature vision, or they are used as sketches or raw material toward the completion of a more complex work.
When it comes to Ellsworth Kelly’s photographs, arranged in a succinct chronological sweep in this new volume, I sense an entirely different engagement. Kelly’s art, as a refresher, addresses color and form in a very straightforward, geometric way. Rarely does he use more than three or four colors, and often relies on only one, uniting it with form, light, and scale as the principle elements of his work. One might imagine his work emerging entirely from a commingling of French curve templates, rulers, and Pantone swatches. But Kelly (1923–2015) made it clear, over time, that there have been real-life correlatives for his work. The dust jacket of his 1994 book Spencertown (featuring his photograph Curve Seen from a Highway, Austerlitz, 1970, which appears on page 39 of the new book) is explicit on this count; the slow rise of a snow-covered field draws a crisp curve across a swath of dark tree trunks, and the resultant shape—note how he calls it a “curve,” not a hill—is immediately recognizable as a “Kelly.”
Photographic syntax helps him conceive the forms of his work. Something intrinsically photographic, the way photography and its optics compress the three-dimensional world into a planar space, suffuses Kelly’s creative process. One could say, then, that the works he is most known for can be fairly considered on the basis of how effectively they render the forms apparent in his photographs.
The book reproduces photographs made over a 32-year period. He has drawn inspiration from both dimensional objects, like bricks, barns, branches, and a cabana on a beach in southwestern France. (Also in that part of the world in 1950 he recorded twisted rebar sprouting from the rubble of shelled bunkers, a recollection of what were then very fresh impressions.) Windows both open and shuttered are predictably good, rectilinear subjects. A broken pane of window glass, too, echoing Brett Weston’s 1937 image Broken Window, San Francisco but captured by an eye attracted to the clear form drawn by the sharp edges.
Kelly embraced perspectival distortions. In fact, the trapezoids that appear in his photographs imply an increasingly sophisticated understanding of photographic vision. A square of refreshed sidewalk cement, photographed at a low angle, meets the picture plane as a skewed rhombus. A glowing drive-in movie screen, seen during the day, floats in an ambiguous relationship to the black background and the hint of horizon above the trees. A bent branch, seen from the proper angle and flattened in the image, casts a shadow on snow that makes a heart.
It’s in his understanding of shadows that Kelly reveals his most photography-reliant inspiration. Knowing that he’s looking for shapes allows us to comprehend his attraction to spaces under eaves, inside doorways, and beneath boardwalks and fire escapes. He understands how shadows issue from the physical objects that cast them and fruitfully explores the tensions present in figure-ground relationships. In some of the images, the sought-after form pushes so assertively against the picture plane that the image starts to flip between one configuration of reality and another.
Kelly clearly grasped that photography’s dialectic encompasses both the dimensional and the flat; using black-and-white imagery this so-called abstract artist asserted that his work bore a very convincing resemblance to aspects of the real world. — George Slade
GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/
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