The Art Scene

Ellsworth Kelly’s “Postcards”


Barbara Purcell

  On a 95-degree evening in Austin last fall, I ran into a curator from the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art at a gallery reception across town. We briefly chatted about the Blanton’s then recently opened “Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards” exhibition, which had been organized by the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. I mentioned I was covering the show for Salmagundi and that I was very much looking forward to seeing the presentation—a departure from the artist’s much larger monochromatic works—up close and personal, and possibly with a pair of reading glasses.
  “I wish someone would write about Kelly, the closet Dadaist,” the curator sighed with a little wink. Is it such a secret, I wondered? A half a century’s worth of repurposed postcards—micro collages, really—that playfully combine elements of chance, humor, and appropriation? Sounds rather Dada to me. The term even appears once or twice in the exhibition catalog, and the postcards themselves are effectively mass-produced readymades—a cornerstone of an art movement that was always hard to pin down, even in its heyday. But if Marcel Duchamp’s postcard of a mustached Mona Lisa could be an emblem of Dada-driven art, couldn’t Kelly’s collage of Marilyn Monroe’s head, frontally floating on the sands of Saint Martin, be one as well?
  You can argue that Kelly’s postcards were more of a silly hobby than a serious body of work—but that would miss the point entirely. What they lack in stature, they make up for in vision: zygotes for much bigger ideas. Unlike Duchamp, Kelly’s aim wasn’t to shock, but to observe; to take in things that already existed and present them in a new light.As a boy, he had been fascinated with birds and with nature—what he once described as “the freedom of colors in space.” For Kelly, the world was one giant readymade: “I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures … I wanted to find them.”
  Still, when I did visit the show, I found myself scanning the small-framed works as if I were on an intelligence mission—not exactly the sensory experience one has when standing before the artist’s iconic color panels sprawled across some gallery wall. But once you’ve spent time gathering the intelligence, you can’t unsee the throughline of Kelly’s vision. The postcards are required reading for anyone interested in what made him tick.
  The two-stop survey featured 150 of the 400 postcards produced by the artist from 1949 to 2005—an “alternative retrospective of Kelly’s work,” said the Tang’s director, Ian Berry, who curated this first-of-its-kind presentation with Jessica Eisenthal of the Ellsworth Kelly Studio. Kelly, who passed away at the age of 92 in 2015, is best known for his paintings, sculptures, and prints, but these 3 ½ x 5 ½ inch works—neatly arranged on the gallery walls in suites—enshrine his signature line, form, and color.
  Though Kelly kept most of the postcards for his personal archives, some were sent to friends and family over the years; others were used as studies for larger works. Broken down into four themes, the exhibition follows a chronological timeline that mirrors the ebb and flow of Kelly’s personal and professional life: “Visual Play and the Framing Edge, 1954-1961,” “Accidental Dimensions and Chromatic Complexity, 1964-1975,” “Seeking Essences of Form and Experience, 1975-1980,” and “Materials and Monuments, 1984-1994.” A postcard of the artist’s very first monochrome painting, done in 1949, is also included, as is a 2005 series of erupting ocean waves.
  Magazine clippings, sourced materials, color cutouts—often from the artist’s own lithographs—complement and/or override the original composition of each postcard. Kelly has livened up their scenery (exotic destinations, iconic architecture) with flat, bold interventions, which tend to disrupt all context and scale. In the postcard “Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium” (1980), a massive black meteor of a cutout has landed square on the baseball field. The cutout—about the size of a large stamp—threatens to obliterate everyone at the game, certainly the players on the diamond, a bit like Godzilla trampling a miniature movie set of Tokyo. This vision might fall short for any Kelly purist in search of the artist’s hard-edge abstraction, but be assured: the meteor is the message.
  The first theme in “Postcards,” “Visual Play and the Framing Edge, 1954-1961,” builds on Kelly’s almost mischievous use of scale through locations around New York City. In “Four Greens, Upper Manhattan Bay” (1957) a photo of Lower Manhattan, framed by four Kelly Green (if you will) abstract forms—each one, an inch or two in dimension—squeezes the city’s skyline and turns two Staten Island Ferries into tiny props. In “Statue of Liberty” (1957) a white strip, possibly a piece of masking tape, runs right up Lady Liberty’s center like a massive column. My favorite of the group, “Coentis Slip” (1957) features a photo of fruit, torn from a magazine, invading the East River like a pectin apocalypse. The Brooklyn Bridge is no match for a bunch of Concord grapes.
  In 1954, Kelly moved into Lower Manhattan’s Coentis Slip neighborhood after studying for six years (thanks to the G.I. Bill) in Paris. Prior to World War II, he had been a student at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, but experienced a kind of culture shock when returning to New York, more interested in the frescoes of Europe than the abstract expressionism uptown. Coentis Slip was far from the art-world action and stuck in another century—a Melvillian inlet once used for whaling ships, the area appealed to a community of artists who “would prefer not to” when it came to mingling 50 blocks north.
  Within two years, Kelly had his first solo show at a gallery on East 57th Street. But as he established himself in the scene uptown—even moving into the aptly named Hotel des Artistes just off Central Park—those early days in ramshackle Coentis Slip set the tone. It was there he produced his first postcard collage, “Gaulouise Blue with Red Curve” (1954), which contained the telltale curvature and flat color forms that have come to define his oeuvre—a lineage seen in his final work, completed some 60 years later, a chapel that sits just steps from the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas campus, which Kelly named “Austin.”
  “Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin’ was deeply influenced by his time spent in France, where he visited many Romanesque and other Medieval-era churches and buildings,” Blanton curator Carter Foster told me in an email. “There are three postcards in the show related to his time there: two that he sent to his friend Ralph Coburn, another American artist there with him.” (Come to think of it, that first Gauloise postcard does resemble an ancient ecclesiastic arch.)
  “Austin,"which Kelly worked on during the last year of his life, is a monument, literally and figuratively, to his practice. The chapel, which opened to the public in 2018, is indeed redolent of the Romanesque architecture that first captured his eye in Europe, with its sturdy, semi-circular arches and heavy frame; like an 11th century abbey in Normandy—made out of Texas limestone. The building’s gleaming white exterior contains three stained-glass designs, each one an example of Kelly’s love affair with color and form. Inside, 14 minimalist Stations of the Cross of black and white marble make their way around the chapel’s perimeter. An ultra-simple wood totem almost 20 feet in height—a longtime abstract motif for the artist—presides as a Christ-less cross. It is the cheeriest church this lapsed Catholic has ever been in. If "Austin” is Kelly’s grand realized vision, then his postcards are the steps leading to the church.
  Back inside the Blanton, the exhibition’s second theme, “Accidental Dimensions and Chromatic Complexity, 1964-1975,” is where Kelly turns to Paris, collaging bits of lithograph onto iconic architecture in a cheeky game of chance. Kelly’s direct observations of architecture turn this particular grouping into a formal, whimsical exercise. In his “Notes of 1969,” he wrote the following:
  Everything that I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there already made, and I could take from everything. It all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory, with its broken and patched panels, lines on a road map, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same: anything goes.
  “Anything goes” does have a Dadaist ring to it; this second batch of postcards most certainly delivers the goods when it comes to absurdity. In “Study for Blue and White Sculpture for les Tuileries” (1964), L'Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel has been completely obstructed (save for the quadriga of Peace riding in a chariot at the top) by a torn blue and white color proof that fits the 60-foot structure like a glove. Again, the scrap of paper—a couple of inches in width and height—transforms the original photograph (and L'arc itself!) into something entirely new. In “Study for Yellow and White Sculpture for la Tour Eiffel” (1964) a lemon square carved by a J-curve of white all but eclipses the Eiffel Tower, leaving only its tip. The square looks instantly recognizable as an Ellsworth Kelly—something you would see in a major museum—yet cut from some random source. Kelly’s distinct translation of the living world, a world that we all walk through and perceive, is the genius of his process. Child-like in the best way: indiscriminate, buoyant, devoid of the veil that eventually forms.
  In 1970, Kelly moved upstate to Spencertown where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life. A series of three postcards from that time—all showing the same shot of downtown Chatham—spotlights the artist’s studio in a historic brick building. In line with his “anything goes” ethos, these three works explore form and color in three distinctly different manners: one donning two stapled triangles of green and yellow (proudly pointing to his studio), another with a color wheel hovering above the building, and a third, with a young male model turned away from the viewer, plastered across the building. Kelly clearly delighted in reinventing the wheel: “the most pleasurable thing in the world, for me, is to see something and then translate how I see it.”
  The uniformity and practicality of these postcards, identical in size, all framed in the same manner, allow the viewer to get in and see what Kelly is capable of in such cozy constraints. Though it might prove eye-glazing at times—hard to just breeze by 150 of these things—it is important to remember that the postcard series serves a vital purpose: each one is a glimpse into Kelly’s methodology. Monochromatic fragments and magazine photos keep pointing to the artist’s well-known shaped canvases and prints. By placing these various scraps onto an already-familiar scene, Kelly takes us on the ultimate getaway—a new way of seeing the everyday.
  “Seeking Essences of Form and Experience, 1975-1980” brings us to Saint Martin, where Kelly spent time at the home of his friend Jasper Johns. The Dada theory becomes even more evident in this group, with body parts adorning the Caribbean landscape like some sacrilegious fashion shoot: siren-red lips, belly buttons, and breasts have been collaged onto stretches of beach, and hills, and other correlating topographies. There are celebrity sightings as well: in “Marilyn Monroe / Shadows” (1974), the starlet’s head floats like a deity above sand and sea. And in “Nose / Sailboat” (1974), Ms. Monroe’s nose assumes the hull of a boat, perfectly placed halfway up the sail, bound for the nasal passage.
  In this grouping, Kelly returns to single-color blocks—often black or white—which became the basis for other works at the time. “Study for Dark Gray and White Rectangle I” (1977), for instance, shows a wave crashing onto rocks, as two conjoined shapes hover in the spindrift. The particulars of its geometry echo a painting made that same year, “White and Dark Gray Panels.” The only thing missing, of course, is the ocean. The 1980 postcard of that packed baseball stadium, with its massive black meteor, boasts of a quadrangular shape that can be spotted as recently as “Austin.”
  At times, Kelly’s collage elements are cut with scissors to create hard, precise edges. In other instances, something gets ripped out of a magazine and it’s all about the soft, imperfect fray. In this grouping, however, I am struck by the amount of folding that’s going on: little creases become a revelation. The thing we do with a gum wrapper while bored. It’s so easy, so obvious—and yet, here we are, at The Blanton.
  “Materials and Monuments, 1984-1994” is the final theme in “Postcards,"withhumor and appropriation in full force. The postcards during this time period are more sculptural, more silly: a pair of Paris Metro tickets form a perpendicular on a black-and-white photo of the magnificent rose window at Sainte-Chapelle. A pie slice of vinyl record graces the groined vaulting of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Picasso overtakes the Pompidou with a sliver of shoulder from "Figure au corselet bleu.” The sauciest of the bunch features a newspaper clipping of a New York Rangers player, taking a stream of water into his o-ring of a mouth, angled upward at the Washington Monument. Whatever the commitment to irreverence, Kelly keeps a steady grasp on scale, form, and, of course, edge.
  A week after seeing “Postcards” in Austin, I stood before Kelly’s “Purple Red Gray Orange” (1987) in London. The lithograph’s four shapes stretched wide across the wall at the Tate Modern, and picked up from where the postcards left off. Its purple diamond, a cousin from Saint Martin; the red triangle, a pair of lush lips; the dark gray slice, a vinyl record in the basilica in Barcelona; and an orange triangle, straight outta Chatham. In the wall text, a quote: my aim is to capture the light and energy of color…color plus form is the content. Color has its own meaning.
  Kelly’s profound regard for color and its relationship to form—how these two things effortlessly exist in the world—is his legacy. And “Austin,” his final masterpiece, seals that legacy; the chapel is a tribute to the light and energy he speaks of. Originally designed as a private commission for a collector in California, the project had fallen through 30 years earlier. Though Kelly had never been to Austin, he did not hesitate when the opportunity arose to place his final work on the University of Texas campus. When the building’s stained glass windows arrived from Germany, the Blanton Museum’s director brought them to the artist, who by then was in the last year of his life, to his home in Upstate New York; Kelly was apparently delighted with them all. “Austin’s” three stained-glass designs—a grid, sunburst, and wheel—light the space’s interior like a jewel box. Their colors show off the confluence of medieval, modernist, and minimalist elements seen throughout Kelly’s creation.
  “A number of the postcard collages feature black and white elements, which relate broadly to the Stations of the Cross marble panels in ‘Austin,’"Blanton’s Carter Foster further elaborated. "There is a postcard from 1991 called ‘London,’ which features colorful interventions of solid collage elements in blue, yellow, and orange on top of an arched building interior—so [there’s] a direct relationship between color and architecture.” “London,” like “Austin,” harks back to the artist’s years in France, when churches and arches occupied much of his thoughts. A trinity of color complements the arch and its relief of three cherubs—a reminder of how architecture, much like nature, deeply influenced Kelly’s life and work.
  In the survey’s final grouping of postcards, done 50 years after Kelly’s first Gauloises-inspired collage, we are presented with four works of the ocean. Sky and water continuously trade one blue for another in these dynamic collages, their smashing waves not unlike the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi’s blue-tile mosaics in Barcelona, broken and brought back together before being made whole. Kelly, who deeply admired Gaudi’s use of fragmentation, was in his eighties by the time he produced these final postcards, at a stage in life when the ocean is nothing but shimmering and showing no signs of slowing down. They reaffirm Kelly’s reverence for nature, for architecture; the way things build onto one another.
  These final collages, in their broken, bright fragments, are a far cry from the very first work featured in “Postcards,” a dark brown monochrome painting from 1949, sent to Ralph Coburn, his old friend in France. (Devine qui te l'envoie? reads Kelly’s handwriting on the back.) This first postcard, completed when the artist was still in Paris, with its murky brushstrokes covering the original image, gives no obvious indication of what was to come in Kelly’s work. But as I lean in and examine “Brown Monochrome,” I begin to see streaks of light, and an entire landscape of shapes takes hold: “I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract.” In 2019, the United States Postal Service honored Kelly with 10 stamps commemorating his singular abstract style—ironic, not only for his lifelong postcard project, but for his stint as a U.S. postal employee himself. Once upon a time, Kelly was a mail sorter at the post office’s main branch in Manhattan, an experience that may or may not have informed his collages. An interesting side note—certainly in the spirit of “anything goes"—and maybe his most Dadaist move of all.

NOTE: Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards was on view Fall 2022 at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin.

Ellsworth Kelly, Nose / Sailboat, 1974

5 ½ x 3 ½ inches, collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, copyright Ellsworth Kelly Foundation