Ellsworth Kelly's 'Tablet', which made its début at The Drawing Center almost 30 years after the date of its most recent component, is a project that is easy to criticize but difficult not to love. Curated by Yves-Alain Bois, it comprises a quarter of a century's worth of doodles and cuttings, first drafts and near misses, organized into a system of 188 uniformly sized panels. Much of the work is, by its nature, tentative, including at least as many dead ends as moments of genuine inspiration, but the pleasure of seeing so much evidence of the artist's thinking processes in one place is inestimable.
Kelly first assembled Tablet in 1973, when he moved from his studio in lower Manhattan to Spencertown in upper New York state. The period it covers, beginning in 1948, was a fertile one for the artist, both professionally and personally. In 1954 he returned to the United States after six formative years in Paris and joined a community of artists that include Agnes Martin and Robert Indiana. An undercurrent of trivia and anecdote that would have any biographer straining at the leash is readily visible in the letters, postcards, notes and invitations that often form the makeshift support for these spontaneous experiments in ink, paint and collage.
In conversation with Bois (at a forum to which the artist himself, regrettably, phoned in sick) Benjamin Buchloh took predictable pains to compare Tablet with Gerhard Richter's ongoing Atlas, but the alignment is ultimately a superficial one. While both are archival enterprises of a sort, sharing an 'organized' presentational style, Kelly's lacks the German painter's rigid curatorial framework. Where the entries in Atlas are classified thematically and chronologically, Tablet represents the journal of a roving eye with scant regard for history (whether personal or public). Both works represent sets of possibilities awaiting further development, but each panel of Tablet is also (or has at least now become) a self-contained, 'finished' work. Spontaneous and improvised within the framework of a clear aesthetic project, Tablet is pure Jazz to Atlas's library of breaks 'n' beats.
With its bold lines and shapes and pure, flat colours, Kelly's art often looks like design, and in Tablet this connection is at its closest and most fascinating. Even when appropriating letter forms or riffing off fragments harvested from the print media, Kelly makes pseudo-logos that signify nothing but themselves (his one corporate commission, for Miller, was never used). Having borne witness to the co-opting of abstraction - both biomorphic and geometric - as a central stylistic element of interior, product and graphic design during the 1950s, Kelly is well aware of its problematic status as an artistic language. Yet rather than surrender its possibilities to other fields, or retain them only as the tainted objects of critique, he continually attempts to reinvest them with the unselfconscious vitality of nature.
A common misconception about Kelly's working method is that it centres on the distillation of found shapes and forms. But while he may take photographs and, as is evident from Tablet, collect and manipulate images from a wide variety of sources, he does not seek to smooth the rough edges of reality in an attempt to construct an art of the ideal. Rather, he looks for things in the world that already resemble the things he makes. Thus elements such as a newspaper image of the sails of a boat passing underneath the arches of a suspension bridge suggest that the flow of influence between the artist and his environment is more than just a drip-feed. Some radical shifts in scale and materials only add to this impression; compare, for example, the wedge-shaped flattened ice-cream wrapper in Tablet #34 (1950s-60s) to any one of several large shaped canvases with a similar outline. While this in itself may seem like a somewhat rarefied thrill, the confidence it signals is invigorating.
In his catalogue essay Bois points to a few of Tablet's other delicious peculiarities: the recurrence of ellipses and connected shapes; the frequent interchangeability of figure and ground; the significance invested in negative space. The full range of the artist's vocabulary is here in liquid and concentrated form, overflowing on to anything and everything. There are frames and fields, sequences and storyboards, dynamic compositions and arrangements seemingly (or actually) arrived at by chance or luck. It would be misleading to suggest that Kelly is the kind of genius who can do no wrong; truer to say that even his mistakes are generally worth our time.
First published in Issue 69