Interview with Ellsworth Kelly: “The freedom of colours in space”

Speaking with the American painter in Basel on colour, geometry, and learning how to see


Veteran American painter Ellsworth Kelly, one of the last surviving artists of the modern old guard, is currently in Basel for the Fondation Beyeler’s exhibition “Léger, Paris-New York”, which directly examines the French artist’s influence on Americans such as Kelly, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg.

At Art Basel, Ellsworth Kelly’s New York dealer Matthew Marks (2.0/C3) has some 18 works, priced between $150,000 for drawings and up to $5m for a painting. But according to Mr Marks, “Everything has sold, all except for two drawings.”

We spoke with the artist on Tuesday.

The Art Newspaper: Why does colour affect you so much?

Ellsworth Kelly: When I was about five or six years old and I studied birds, I remember seeing a red and black bird and following it into a pine forest right behind my house. Colour fascinated me in birds—red streak here, blue streak there, green streak here—and I really love deep-sea fish. I feel that the freedom of colours in space is very much what I’ve always been involved in.

In 1952, in the South of France, I did a picture called Painting for a White Wall, in dark blue, pink, orange, white, light blue. I put it on the balcony and went downstairs and sat down to see what people would think of it. Four boys came by, and one said, “Bleu foncé, rose, orange, white, bleu clair.” And I thought, “He got it! He named the colours!” A lot of people think that painting is one of my cornerstones.

TAN: Today we all know about Malevich’s “Black Square” of 1915, but when you were starting you probably didn’t.

EK: He wasn’t known in Paris and Mondrian wasn’t either. Mondrian to me has always been too regular, too intellectual, too spiritual in his grids. He never used curves; curves were important to me. I use geometry—shapes and stuff—but geometric art is very boring to me. And I want to leave some of the painting unfinished, leave it open for anyone who is looking at it. I’ve never had any doubt about painting, about being an artist today. What are we doing over in Iraq, in Afghanistan? It’s crazy in America. You feel, “What the hell am I doing?” To keep sane, you have to keep working.

TAN: Your drawings of plants and flowers have been emerging. Your paintings are so far from being drawings, that people might ask themselves what drawing means to you?

EK: Drawings are about what the paintings get to. They are about form and shape, about seeing. I had a very good drawing teacher in Boston, who taught me how to see and I believe that all artists have to learn how to see. After two years of trying to do it, one day I said, “Oh my God, I can draw anything because I understand what these folds mean.” With Picasso and Matisse, no matter how simple the drawing is, it is good.

TAN: Tell me about the Léger exhibition now at the Fondation Beyeler.

EK: I used to know Roy Lichtenstein very well—he was the best artist friend I had. We both have a room in the Léger show and it is funny, because when you look at a Lichtenstein, then you go and look at the Légers differently; then you go back to the Lichtensteins and they look different because you have been looking at the Légers.

TAN: There must be points when you were flying high and points when you were in the doldrums.

EK: It’s always a struggle to do the paintings and to feel I don’t want to be understood so easily. When I came back to the US after my years in Paris, I hadn’t seen Pollock, I hadn’t seen de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Rothko—any of them. My career started very slowly. I felt out of synch. They kept asking, “Why are you using such bright colours?” I had to apologise for being a colour painter.

TAN: You’re very fashionable at the moment.

EK: Because I’m one of the few who are left. Let’s see, Artschwager is my age, and Bob [Rauschenberg] just died—he was two years younger. Jasper’s around.