Found Forms after Ellsworth KellyDecember 1, 2022
In search of my head outside of my head
I was standing on a street near La Chapelle, on the corner where Rue Buzelin and Rue Riquet meet, when I looked up at an industrial building and saw it - my head!
In our classes this week, we investigated the movement qualities of the pelvis (basin), plexus (plexus), and head (tête). Our research started in the body. We paid close attention to how each of these body parts moved during a series of practical exercises. For now though, I’d like to focus on the second phase of the research: translating these movement qualities into plastic representations in space.
How could I construct forms that articulate space with the same dynamic with which the pelvis, plexus, and head move? How could I transpose a movement quality into a plastic form? The task was not to represent the pelvis itself, but to transpose onto the static materials of cardboard and wood the durational and ephemeral movement of the pelvis. What is needed to transpose from one medium, the body (in time), into another, cardboard?
We were guided by our teacher to make a cardboard frame which could then support our structures. We started with the pelvis. Using bean-like shapes of cardboard, I began to find a gentle, steady, rolling sensation. The forms eased into the surrounding space and teased at turning the air around them. Moving onto the plexus, I found an expression of the open but taught sensation of my plexus by using arcing cardboard curves which pushed into space beyond the frame and were supported by a rigid baton of wood As I started working on the upper third of my frame, I found it difficult to find the plastic expression of the precise, direct, angular movement of the head. After several attempts, wrestling with various combinations of cardboard, wood, and string, I gave up. Despite my best efforts, I left the atelier feeling dissatisfied with the structure on my desk.
On a visit to the Pompidou later in the week, I found myself in front of a pair of Ellsworth Kelly ‘shaped canvases’ and was reminded of his formative period spent in Paris between 1948 and 1954, which Yves-Alain Bois discusses in the introduction of Ellsworth Kelly’s catalogue raisonée (part 1). During this period, Kelly developed a series of strategies to bypass the authorial decisions involved in making a work, in doing so, he subverted the Romantic and Modernist conception of the artist as a creative genius.
Bois suggests three motives for Kelly’s turn away from invoking his own subjectivity in his work: the first is Kelly’s personal interest in Medieval architecture (for him,the anonymous work of craftsmen); the second is his post-war context, the post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima doubt in individual humanity; the third is the “Picasso factor”. As a young artist working in postwar Paris, it was difficult to create anything that hadn’t already been done by Picasso - perhaps the one thing Picasso didn’t know how to do was how not to invent (2015, Bois, p.11).
Bois identifies a series of methods which Kelly used to compose his paintings without having to make any artistic decisions, what Bois refers to as ‘non-compositional strategies’; “chance, silhouettes, the grid, the monochrome and the transfer.” (2015, Bois) ‘The transfer’ was the first Kelly devised, and the strategy I’d like to focus on here. The transfer involves Kelly finding already-made forms in the world and presenting (not representing) them on a canvas.
Below are two examples of early works produced by the transfer. Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris (1949) which is a duplicate of one of the windows of the old (pre-Pompidou Centre) Musée National d’Art Moderne. The second example, La Combe II (1950–51), presents the cast shadows on a metallic stairway. In each of these works, the only subjective decision Kelly makes is to record the form he sees. In doing so, the whole world opens up to Kelly as potential visual scores for works. Perhaps, the infinite potential of the transfer surpasses Picasso’s seemingly total scope for invention. In a 1971 interview, Kelly recalls his discovery of the transfer and what it made available to him: “everything”:
“Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added,” Kelly said. “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 panes, lines of a roadmap, the shape of a scarf on a woman’s head, a fragment of Le Corbusier’s Swiss Pavilion, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street.” (Kelly, in Tricia Paik 2018)
I wondered if my struggle to compose the plastic expression of the movement of my head could be solved with Kelly’s transfer. Maybe I could find the formal expression already-made. I stepped outside with my camera, and sensed the city revealing itself to me as a multitude of compositional possibilities. I entered into a defamiliarised mode of looking, one that divorced sign from referent, and it was in this space between the two, this semiotic chasm, that something else emerged - sensation. I saw pure form and, without the baggage of meaning, I was available to sense the expression of the forms I encountered. I experienced the curve of an entrance above a shop as the fragile rotation of my shoulder, the cylindrical electrical elements of a railway line as the flexing of my wrists. And finally, I was standing on a street near La Chapelle, on the corner where Rue Buzelin and Rue Riquet meet, when I looked up at an industrial building and saw it - my head!
The particular angles at which the metal cladding and reflective windows met, together with the shadows they cast, expressed the direct quality of movement I had felt in my head. I returned to the atelier with a renewed enthusiasm, and I transferred the forms of the angular building onto the upper third of my structure. But it was not just a collection of forms I was transferring: the forms themselves were (for me) a transposition of the movement of my head.
Kelly’s transfer had not just provided me with a form, but a way to perceive previously occluded common properties within different media. In this case, I could recognise what was shared by the movement of my head and the industrial building. Exactly what it was, this shared something, is difficult to name - but perhaps that is precisely because the very attentional mode through which I found it was pre- or post-linguistic. As I walked around in search of my head, I perceived my environment without the need to attach words to what I saw, only to experience it just as it was.
- Bois, Yves-Alain (2015) Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculpture: Vol. 1, 1940 - 1953, Paris: Editions Cahier D’art
- Paik, Tricia (2018) Ellsworth Kelly, London, Paris, New York: Phaidon