Although Ellsworth Kelly lived in France for six years as a young man, I don’t think of his work as being particularly influenced by or of interest to the French. And yet, there it is, in pride of place on the 4th floor of the Pompidou Centre. As I spent more time with the paintings, I began to see why Fenêtres/Windows would gets its own exhibition at the Pompidou. Kelly’s window paintings are both inspired by and representations of Parisian windows. This small exhibition is delightful and will be an inspiration to people interested in both representational and abstract painting.
The Parisian window is something to look at, not through or inside. Kelly shows us the window frame as an aesthetic, complete with a formal geometry and a potential to cast shadows that skew that form. The small series of Kelly’s Window paintings, together with studies and preparatory sketches invite us look at Paris’s windows differently. In the earliest examples from 1949, Kelly paints and draws the wooden frames in black, filling the glass and what would be the surrounding building façade in a thick, matte white oil paint. In Window II (1949) Kelly’s hesitant thinking is revealed in the white painting over black lines on a linen support. The unevenness of the white field that represents glass is not something that we associate with Kelly. The painting becomes an off-white, cracked surface, making it more sensuous. The paint in Window II reveals traces of time inscribed as grains of dirt might tell of a shower of rain on a window. In these early examples, Kelly is not yet fully equating the window with painting, but rather, sees the window as an object to be painted, a surface to be looked at, and represented.
In these early examples, Kelly translates what he sees into painting, from one medium (reality) into another (painting). However, the one equation he begins to make between window and painting is in the use of wooden frame of the stretcher to “represent” the frame of the window.
As the exhibition continues, Kelly starts to broaden his perspective on the window. Windows are opened and closed, they are broken, come in all different forms; with shutters, looking like doors, with curtains, sash windows. He even finds windows where they are not, for example, in a construction belonging to the International University campus in Window VI (1950). At the centre of the exhibition is the Window. Museum of Modern Art Paris (November 1949). The window itself is shown in an accompanying photograph; covered in graffiti, painted over, cracked. Kelly’s representation removes the detail and in a frame that replicates the form of the window itself, he places a white and a grey canvas beneath. In this work, the wooden representation of the window frame is brought to the fore by the placement of the grey canvas behind it the frame. As a result, the painting as glass is also emphasized, rendering the canvas an optical field.
There is mention in the flyer about Kelly’s attraction to the “anonymity of Egyptian art.” I am not sure what this means, but as he continues to paint and draw windows, the object of the window loses its identity; it starts to lack objecthood, and like glass, becomes an abstract shape. This could, of course, be called anonymous. Kelly also claims the “painting is a fragment of the visual world, where the third dimension is removed.” We might conclude that as windows become painting with the third dimension removed, the canvas represents glass and we are left looking at or through nothing. Then, we see the painting as object thanks to the markings (like paint on a canvas) such as dirt left by rain, cracks made by a stone, or reflections of something or someone that happen to find it as mirror. Accordingly, when the window becomes a wall for graffiti or a mirror for a person’s image, two dimensions return to three dimensions, the glass window to a thing.
While I see the connection being made between the two halves of the exhibition, I am not convinced. In the second half, we see Kelly’s black and white paintings. Unlike the windows, works such as Black. Two Whites, 1953 are about looking with the object of the window (and the painting) removed. The question of what we are seeing shifts from “Am I looking at a window, a picture of a window, a painting, or an abstract work?” to “What is the relationship of the white field to the black?” or in a works such as the adjacent, White Square (1953) and Black Square (1953), “are they the same size? Or does my vision deceive me?” This uncertainty comes because the placement of each color changes our perception of the canvas. Similarly, in the most recent work on display, I am reminded that the emptiness and nothingness of white is never empty and nothing on the canvas. When I stand before White Over Black III, 2015, my shadow intrudes into the painting if it is lit from behind me and the slick white surface becomes a mirror. As a result the object and surface shifts, yet again, to a whole new phenomenon.