Vincent Van Gogh, back when he was a nobody, wrote eloquently about the dangers of putting over much confidence in “names” in art. He was prescient. Today the official art of the museums consists almost entirely of names — which is to say that the contemporary objects on display do not necessary strike a visual person as being particularly interesting to look at, yet we are urged to accept the objects as the highest forms of art. And it strikes me as significant that the chief selling points of the objects is that they are purportedly made by “important” artists of our era, who are usually people that we’ve never heard of.
A certain kind of art is plausible only for audiences that possess a university degree. No farmer from either Missouri or Bangladesh is likely to be persuaded that a uniform grouping of various colored squares is important to look at or to contemplate. However, the same inartistic farmer might be very moved by the extraordinary skill evident in something like the precise rendering of forms found in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.
It’s obvious in the case of the uniform squares that anyone could produce a similar effect and equally obvious in the case of the Leonardo that one is seeing something rare, difficult, meaningful, enigmatic and skillfully made.
I’m discovering from my blog stats that a surprising number of people are visiting here specifically in search of information about Ellsworth Kelly, since my one previous post on the man has garnered the most traffic of any of my posts! (Sigh.) I’m guessing that these unknown visitors are students from classes in contemporary art, come hunting perhaps for useful quotes or information.
To demonstrate my willingness to be helpful, let me refer you to a video on Youtube of an interview with the not terribly interesting and now elderly artist.
The problem of Ellsworth Kelly, which needs to be explained only to educated people and never to farmers from Missouri or Bangladesh, is that he isn’t really doing anything. It ought to be perfectly obvious, but your college professor is standing there telling you that the man is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and meanwhile perhaps you don’t possess the highest confidence in your own powers of visualization. But you are being duped. I’m sorry that there’s no kinder way to phrase it.
Ellsworth Kelly is a classic case of “what you see is what you get.” His canvases are plain shapes painted different colors and hung on museum walls. Anyone, however, can get their image on a museum wall these days. At the top of the post I feature a lovely scene where my painting Lattice shares space with Joan Mitchell abstractions in an enormous exhibit at MOMA. Lattice really holds its own, don’t you think? And look how bravely the guard protects my painting, too ….
It would take a long post to explain what art does that Kelly does not do. The range of things that genuinely comprise what art is includes a great variety of images and objects. But certainly one short cut to a definition of art in purely practical terms is that it equals something that matters in your own life. If my readers find genuine meaning in Ellsworth Kelly, if they look at his colored surfaces and find rapture, well far be it from me to dissuade them from whatever works. But the more visually alert a person is, the more of sensibility that one possesses — whatever intuition of nuance and mood and evocative power stirred by seeing the ordinary objects of common living experience, the images that draw out our deepest feelings and thoughts — these are not, I think, found in his spare fabrications.
They are squares. That’s what they are. Somebody tell the professor. But don’t believe me. Believe Van Gogh who diagnosed this problem over a hundred years ago. It’s the worship of “names,” though even that doesn’t quite explain it in Kelly’s case. Here, it’s the odd worship of nothing.