The exhibition at Haus der kunst
is devoted solely to the works in black and white. Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923 in Newburgh, New York) regularly verified a newfound formal solution through an execution in black and white. Mostly these versions in black and white were created parallel to the coloured versions; sometimes they preceded them. According to Ellsworth Kelly, his paintings in black and white comprise approximately 20 percent of his total úuvre; their amount in the complete work is higher than that of any other two-colour combination. So far these works have never been brought together in an exhibition, although the artist has encouraged this kind of retrospective since the 1990s.
Since the beginning of his artistic endeavours, Ellsworth Kelly dealt with basic shapes he found in reality. In doing so, his perception is inspired by an object's external characteristics. He is interested in shadows and the texture of surfaces isolated from their contexts. By transforming his pictorial ideas into black and white ñ as a representation of dark and light ñ Ellsworth Kelly is able to concentrate exclusively on form and outline. The distraction of emotional values of colours is omitted.
Ellsworth Kelly's use of these forms revolves around one central topic: How significantly does the perception of mass and volume, of figure and ground, of the canvas and its relation to space alternate, depending on whether black appears over white or white cuts through black.
Ellsworth Kelly usually reduces an object that captivates his attention into the twodimensional: a glass porch, the floor of a terrace in an Parisian sidewalk cafe, the shadow of a hand rail on a staircase. His gaze penetrates these objects, i.e. he reaches to their very nature by removing them from their spatial context. Ellsworth Kelly isolates and copies without modifying or adding anything. He deliberately does not resort to invented lines and is thereby free of any necessity to compose something: "The things that interest me were always there."
In this way a fragment of everyday reality, which he translates into simple, memorable forms, is transformed into a sign that can be understood spiritually. The canon of forms Ellsworth Kelly has created over the decades is as reserved as elegant and maintains a balance between monumentality and fragility.
An example of his approach, which has since become an iconic figure, dates from 1949, "Window. Museum of Modern Art Paris". One of the museum's vertical windows served as the motif for this relief. Ellsworth Kelly measured the window's panes, had a cabinet maker construct wooden reproductions of the frame and painted these. The lower of the two panels out of which the "Window. Museum of Modern Art Paris" consists, lies behind the upper one. Moreover, the frame and the mullions cast real shadows. In much the same way a year later, while spending the summer in Meschers-sur-Gironde on the Atlantic coast of France, the shadow cast by the railing on the white stairs leading to his room gave him the idea for the series "La Combe". The execution in black and white is a folding screen of nine panels. Fragments of diagonals protrude from the top in its white ground.
Ellsworth Kelly long kept the source of his motifs quiet. Presumably he was doubtful that his paintings would be comprehended as solely inspired by everyday objects, and his proximity to figurative abstraction would be overestimated. Back then there was an ideological abyss between abstract and representational painting. He himself stated that Mondrian's style and his program of neutrality, which places no emphasis on texture or brushstroke, the aura of Constantine Brancusi's forms as well as the work of Picasso were all important for his artistic development
Years later Ellsworth Kelly changed his attitude toward the disclosure of his sources. During a sojourn in Paris in 1967 he photographed the window that provided the motif for "Window. Museum of Modern Art Paris", thus subsequently revealing the painting's source. The reason was that he wished to oppose something against the classification of his work as Minimalistic.
The cosmos of his black and white works is in the exhibition expanded by a concise selection of drawings, collages and photographs. With his drawings and collages Ellsworth Kelly sketches ideas for images that he sometimes only executes decades later. The photographs document the original impressions that have become established as perceptions: a broken pane of glass, a rooftop that reaches down to the meadow, the gentle elevation of a snowy hill, the reflection of the sun on a corrugated roof, the hard diagonal shadow of a garage driveway. In their function as reminders they are subordinated to the paintings and yet testify to the search for similar phenomena.