If I were giving a prize for the most overrated artist in history, it would be Ellsworth Kelly, who in truth deserves not to be rated at all for his oeuvre is painted in the purest snake oil.  (For an interesting opposing view click here.) Chief among his vices is pretentiousness, for if Mr. Kelly is an artist then so is the person who lays out the paint cards at Home Depot’s paint section.  Indeed, I would argue that the latter work is more fulfilling since one) it’s interactive and two) you can take the little cards home and arrange them to your heart’s delight for free.

However, more than one friend has said to me, “I hate it when somebody sees a work of art and says, ‘I could do that.'”  My feeling in sharp contrast is a great sigh of pleasure in the candour of the remark.  Yes, anyone could do that.  So true.  Moreover, I feel that when anyone can do a thing — supposing the thing has value — one should probably just do it oneself.  If Mr. Kelly does this on our behalf, mind you, I’m perfectly content to pay him a decent wage not to exceed whatever they’re paying the guy at Home Depot.  But if I am supposed to pretend that his achievement is equal to, say, Rembrandt’s or the Rohan Master’s or Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s then, no.  I will not play that game.  My own painting is far superior to Mr. Kelly’s and I make no bones about it.

I can do what he does — easily.  He cannot do what I do.  Not at all.  (Let him try!)

Kelly is a cheap Matisse knock off.  (Whew, it feels good to get that off my chest.)

UPDATE:  A second post on Ellsworth Kelly can be found here.

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25 thoughts on “Less than perfect

  1. Yayaya. Well said and courageous too. Not just this Mr Kelly either but a whole generation of modern ‘artists’ who are nothing more than advertising executives and snake oil salesmen. You are a much better artist than he and you always will be.

  2. Charles, What about the post do you feel is ignorant? I’m aware of commentary on Kelly’s work, so I’m not ignorant of it — I just don’t accept it. In fact I recently saw an taped interview of Kelly talking about his work and found his commentary really quite vacuous. But if you would like to defend him, certainly feel free to leave a more detailed comment.

    Best wishes,

    Aletha Kuschan

  3. Gallery label text

    Kelly arranged the sixty–four square panels of the grid in an arbitrary sequence, likening his method to the “the work of a bricklayer.” Using squares of commercial colored paper left over from a previous series of collages, he first made a study for Colors for a Large Wall. Then he precisely matched the hues of the papers with oil paint, and arranged the final, full–size panels in strict adherence to the paper study.

    For some reason I doubt it is fair to compare the works of Ellsworth Kelly to a man that works at Home Depot.

  4. Hunter,

    Thank you for your comment. Oddly enough while “Less than Perfect” is my most active post, as you can see for yourself, few of Kelly’s admirers ever leave a comment, though one might suppose that the people who find this post are most probably his admirers rather than his critics. So, count yourself among the brave few!

    That said, any painter of even the most pedestrian skill knows how to mix colors so you have not built a very big defense for him. Moreover in an arrangement of color squares like this, exactitude of hue has little discernible impact. I could get into a long technical explanation of why (even scientifically) Kelly’s attempt to match his sketch is actually pretty irrelevant. But I will spare you a boring digression.

    A deep understanding of color and its properties are found in works by diverse Western artists — like, say, Vermeer, Winslow Homer, Paul Cezanne, Pierre Bonnard, or as has been discovered in modern times (due to restoration) by Michaelangelo in the Sistine, or by Pontormo and many others. Or one might point to the French Impressionists as artists who made particularly noteable use of color. In comparison with artists like these, Kelly is just a modern guy with pictures in museums because he benefitted hugely by timely and mysterious fads.

    Anyway, thank you for at least making the attempt to defend your guy. Perhaps it will embolden others to think more deeply about these questions.


  5. I think is easy for many people to say “I can do that too” when maybe that person wouldn’t came out with that in a million years. It’s not about if you can do art, it’s about if you can imagine it. I personally think I can do what you did in your “Tropical Ridge”, (and I understand you have more complex works in there, I just take a simple one to make my point) but not because I can do it, it means is not art, or less valuable. I like that an artist can make “art” from something as simple as a sum of colored squares. Yes, you can do what he did, but is easier to do after seeing his work. How many people can copy to perfection someone else’s masterpiece but can’t be creative and original enough to create an original masterpiece.

    It’s just unfair not to recognized Kelly’s creativity in his use of really basic and simple forms to make a beautiful composition. And in my opinion, beauty is not related to the amount of effort someone put in a work. Plus, at the end, you can see it as a compliment to all the simple thing humans can do, a tribute to common people with ordinary skills, like farmers, that are not born with the ability to make something like Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.

    I want to state that I am not against you or your work; I’m just adding another point of view to this post. In fact, it’s nice to found people that are not afraid to depict personal ideas, knowing that everybody won’t agree.

    By the way, if you were wondering why this is a very active post, it’s because the picture you have of “Study for Colors for a Large Wall” is the first one to appear in the result for an “Ellsworth Kelly” search on Google Images, as in 07/28/09. (http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla%3Aen-US%3Aofficial&um=1&sa=1&q=ellsworth+kelly&btnG=Search+images&aq=f&oq=&aqi=) That’s excellent publicity after all! 🙂

    Have a nice day!

  6. Marilyn,

    Being the “first” to come out with something presupposes that the something has value. It’s the end product of Kelly’s efforts that I believe lacks value, so being first, middle or last doesn’t calculate for me. But I am heartened to see you articulate your thoughts on this subject. While I disagree, I am discouraged that such an active post as this one generates so little commentary. Kelly’s fans are reluctant to defend their guy — so you are in quite a rare group. Congratulations!

    I am quite willing to believe that you can do something like my Tropical Ridge — lots of people have artistic ability. Indeed, it’s also possible that you could do it better than I did — in which instance, I would argue that yours was the more artistic and the superior version.

    I don’t know what your background is or whether you’ve studied art history very much. The notion of “innovation” — complex and highly vague concept — is somewhat over-emphasized in contemporary art talk precisely because people do not know how great art of the past was created, nor do they pose definitions regarding what characterizes greatness much beyond so-n-so being “famous.” I argue that Kelly’s art has value according to the Vanna White standard, recalling Vanna White of the tv show “Wheel of Fortune,” who was once very aptly described (with no malice intended against Ms. White) as “famous for being famous,” although Kelly isn’t even famous! (Except to a very tiny niche market.)

    Just to give you an example, according to Vermeer scholar Arthur Wheelock, it appears that Vermeer got the ideas for his famous interiors from Ter Borch. If true, then Ter Borch would be the “first” and therefore the innovator of that genre?? But in fact an aesthetic comparison of the two reveals, for most viewers, I think, that Vermeer takes Ter Borch’s idea and really transforms it in formal ways into a radically ineffable “something” that Ter Borch was never capable of emulating. (And I’d be quite willing to articulate more extensively wherein Vermeer’s visual genius lies, except it would involve a very longish answer.)

    Great visual art is “visual” above all. It’s the formal innovation, the visual aspect of genius that is elusive for most people — and in this case I would include Kelly as being among those who most clearly and assuredly don’t get it.

    But, hey, it’s a free country. To each his own. Cheers to you for having the gumption to speak your mind. I admire your candor very much.

    Thank you for your comment.


  7. Two points:
    I would expect an fellow painter to bemore reserved with their opinions.
    The difference between your work and his is that I would like to have his on my wall to look at, regardless of how cynical you consider his approach.

    Good luck.

  8. Pqul,

    Interesting your thinking that my being a painter should make me more reserved in expressing an opinion about Kelly. Actually, I think my experiences as an artist make my views more authoritative. As to whose art you prefer, you’re entitled to your opinion.

    I’m glad you offered your two cents. This is one of my most active posts, but many readers are evidently reluctant to express a view. Thanks for your comment.


  9. Am I understanding this correctly? Someone is wasting her time insisting that her art is “far superior” to this master colorist and designer, who, with Ralph Coburn virtually invented automatic drawing and is internationally recognized for his elegant pencil drawings and advances to modern and contemporary minimalism? Am I missing something?

  10. “Virtually invented automatic drawing.” Are you sure he didn’t invent drawing itself? Perhaps color too!

    Yes, you are missing something: an understanding of art that does not need the support of “international recognition,” that can stand simply on its own two feet.

    But thanks for your comment. Most readers of this post are too shy by half.

  11. Kelly was exploring a subjectivity and not decorative art. Know the text before you form your argument.

  12. Dear Native,

    I not only “know the text,” I provided a link to a Kelly interview. However, I do not accept your premise at all — that he explores a “subjectivity” as though this is something unusual. How does any art escape being subjective?

    In any case, I’m not sure that Mr. Kelly can decide the basis for art’s merit. Of course he’s been quite free to do whatever he likes himself, but that doesn’t make it meaningful or even interesting in a larger sphere.

    As to its not being decorative art, about that we agree. I’d say his art falls very far from the mark.

    But thank you for your comment! Most visitors to this post are far too shy.


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