Click here to see a slide show of works of art in this exhibit.
We all know that no critical judgment is absolute. Perceptions of a work of art are shaped by the experience of the perceiver—interpretations of a particular painting shift as culture and society do. A certain etiquette of appraisal exists; you can no more proclaim that someone's aesthetic judgment is categorically wrong than you can, at a dinner party, allow your food to drop out of your mouth back onto your plate if your palate has been disappointed. On the other hand, if a critic argued that Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse was a book about a search for the perfect one-day vacation, another critic might feel that a corrective response would not be a violation of interpretive manners.
So no one should take it amiss if I say that Ken Johnson is wrong when, in reviewing the Whitney Museum's current exhibition "Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue" for the New York Times, he implies that Kelly intends these canvases to refer to television. It's one thing for Johnson to say that these paintings remind him, Johnson himself, of what he calls "the fundamental palette from which TV-tube color is mixed." It wouldn't be an uninteresting suggestion to make, either, especially considering that Kelly has for decades projected an image of himself as an artist whose perceptions have a childlike innocence and an absolute detachment from all pop culture. But it's another thing for Johnson or for any critic to say that Kelly himself had television in mind when he created these works.
In fairness, Johnson hedges. Rather than come out and say that Kelly was thinking about television at the time that he produced the red-green-blue paintings, made in the late '50s and early '60s, Johnson endorses a catalog essay by an academic named Sarah K. Rich that makes this claim. Rich declares, "I can't help but see Kelly's paintings from the late fifties and early sixties as clever citations of television apparatuses." Her argument rests on the evidence of color TV and on Kelly's exposure to NBC's green, red, and blue logo. But as Rich herself points out, few people had color televisions in the late '50s, and the NBC color logo didn't appear until the '60s. Even so, Johnson describes Rich's case as "refreshing" and writes approvingly that "she is the only one in this catalog to argue that Mr. Kelly's painting has more than a little to do with modern mass media." Then he goes on to bolster her argument with his own perceptions—even though they fly in the face of Kelly's own stated purposes, which have always been to create an art true only to its own idiosyncratic inner logic.
Kelly's formative experiences as a young artist occurred in Paris, where he lived after leaving the Army following World War II. Encountering the work of the French modernists, especially Arp and Matisse, Kelly was able to sidestep the enormous influence exerted by the abstract expressionists, who then dominated the art scene in the United States. It's no wonder that it was the collages of Arp and Matisse that inspired Kelly instead. The abstract expressionists took their defiance, their bohemian adversarialism, their existential gestures very seriously; collage, however, is like the iron in Greek comedy, the little figure who punctures the pompous big figure. No matter how violently yoked together, every collage is a little bit funny. (After Jackson Pollock died, Lee Krasner, his widow and a superb artist in her own right, tore up some of his paintings and made collages out of the pieces—an act of both redemption and revenge.)
One principal aim of much 20th-century collage, as pioneered by Picasso and Braque, was to free color and form from the chains of utility. The strips of paper in a papier collé exist as elements in an artwork independent of any function in the outside world, but they are also things brought in from the outside world that are not fully assimilated into the work of art. Collages' anti-artistic side was just the thing to deflate the abstract expressionists' self-inflations. And it was just the thing for an artist like Kelly, who was looking for a way into art around the imperial presence of painters like Pollock, Rothko, and Newman.
Eventually, Kelly's collage pieces evolved into flat planes of color that were happily, but unidentifiably, at ease in the nonartistic world. There was still the uneasy mediation of the canvas itself, though, no matter how smoothly it fused with the wall on which it was hung. And so Kelly moved from painted canvases to making three-dimensional colored panels that abolished the framework of a painting and melted into their environment—at once modest aesthetic objects and mundanely nonartistic things. They represented Kelly's lifelong aim: to create absolutely autonomous forms, as free from external reference as forms can be. Or, as Kelly put it, to make "Pictures that were their own reality, without meaning or cerebral intention."
Mask (1958) is the earliest painting in this show (which also includes works on paper, photographs, and collages, many of them studies for the paintings). One could say that what Mask's truncated forms—of blue and red, displayed on a green background—are really hiding are further permutations of color. These permutations are infinite, and the other paintings in the series unfold their odyssey. The three primary colors in this series are neither representative of any worldly form the eye can recognize or—a la the abstract expressionists—expressive of an emotion. Rothko famously said that he wanted his squares with rounded corners suspended in moist fields of color to make the viewer cry. Kelly just wants the viewer to keep looking, to forget what he or she is feeling and where he or she is standing.
Of course, artists are famously sly about their intentions. As D.H. Lawrence once said, you have to trust the tale, not the teller. There's no reason that anyone should take Kelly, or any other great artist, at his word. But Kelly's art happens to illustrate his intentions. His telling and his tale are a seamless fit. And this is not just an aesthetic question. If art, by replenishing our perceptions, can make us feel free, then maybe we have the capacity to live freely—at least through our perceptions.
For Johnson and Rich, however, the series' squares with softened corners are not references to Rothko's iconography—one possible "citation" if these images mean anything outside themselves at all, which is doubtful. Rather, they are, in Johnson's words, "like a television screen." At this point, such a perception is not a daring outrage to a solemn conception of high art. It's a banality implying that the forces of mass culture are so strong that Kelly himself cannot be believed when he says his art has nothing to do with them.