The Rapture of Seeing & Ellsworth Kelly (RIP)


They’re not “pictures.” When I first started going out to look at art, I always liked Ellsworth Kelly’s compositions, if that’s the right word, primarily for the quiet view it brought to things like simple shapes and colors. While he’s most famous for the brightness of his palette, I’m including this image of this white fan-like figure, part of Memorial (1993-1995), a wall sculpture at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

About what his work was about, I’m posting below this concluding bit from his obituary by Holland Cotter at the New York Times. You can read the whole thing here. As is his wont, Cotter flags in a very subtle way the religious or spiritual component to a body of art, in this case the inspiration Kelly is said to have drawn from the anonymous design of Romanesque church architecture. The effects are contemplative and structural.

“Mr. Kelly was as adamant about what his art was not as about what it was. Unlike the work of the early European modernists he admired, it was not about social theory. It was not about geometry or abstraction as ends in themselves. And although he derived many of his shapes from the natural world, his art was not about nature.

My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said in 1996. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.”

Although he was interested in history and concerned about his place in it, he spoke of his own work as existing “forever in the present.”

I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living,” he said. “This is an illusion, of course. What I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.”


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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6 Responses to The Rapture of Seeing & Ellsworth Kelly (RIP)

  1. dmf says:

    most of this sort of modern art escapes me (almost said leaves me flat) but I appreciate the idea of foregrounding of experience and I was pleasantly surprised by his drawings of plants.

    • zjb says:

      i think part of the trick is to stay with that flat feeling. Have you read Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories? The chapter on the Interesting you might like.

      • dmf says:

        I haven’t but I’ll try and track down a copy, to be more specific I don’t have much affect/effect just a sense of well that’s some bars of color or such, they just sort of read as what they are (if you will) and not anything more, could be showing me paint samples in a hardware store except there I would ‘get’ it.

      • zjb says:

        this is precisely part of the point as described by Ngai.

      • dmf says:

        very good thanks it’s on the reading list now just gotta scrounge up a copy

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