Most artists have little scraps of drawings and doodles lying around their studios. Sometimes these things are saved, but most of the time they get tossed out. You can't keep everything, right? And what the hell are you going to do with random sketches on bits of newspaper and dry-cleaning receipts? Well, Ellsworth Kelly came up with a solution. He grouped them, mounted them and framed them. The result, a series of 188 groupings containing 819 works known as Tablet (1948-1973), is exhibited alongside some of Kelly's paintings and sculptures in "Ellsworth Kelly: Tablet," on view at the Menil Collection. Tablet (1948-1973) was an approximately $4.5 million gift from Menil board president Louisa Stude Sarofim to the museum.
Tablet is not just a practical solution for preserving and presenting an artist's studio ephemera; it is a fascinating record of one man's artistic thought process and the way he views the world, presented through the little detritus of life. The project started in 1973 when Kelly, having just moved into a new studio, started unpacking all the bits and pieces he'd boxed up at the old place. Sifting through those little doodles, he saw images that had later found their way into his abstract paintings, his shaped, monochromatic canvases and his sculptures. In the Menil show, chief curator Matthew Drutt's sparing selection of Kelly's paintings and sculptures provides a context for the sketches and ephemera.
Artists arrive at abstraction through many different routes: mathematically, gesturally, conceptually Kelly is one of those artists who finds and extracts abstraction from the real world. In Tablet 34, on a corner torn from a highway map of Vermont, Kelly has traced over the state's silhouette, straightening out the edges and creating a skewed rectangle with an overlapping form. Next to it, you see two small drawings in which Kelly refines the form into a harder rectangle. The same grouping contains triangular shapes on corners of paper and a squashed snow-cone cup -- no longer conical, but a flat triangle with a rounded base.
Tablet 103 has the printed image of an old brick building with a stepped gable and silhouettes of pointed roofs and chimneys in the background. The architectural forms are mirrored by the grouping's drawings of dark, angular shapes and snippets of folded paper from a pack of Gitanes cigarettes. (Kelly lived in France in the late '40s and early '50s.)
In other groupings, Kelly draws over newspaper and magazine photographs, extracting forms. Tablet 54 contains a photograph of two men wearing skirts, button-down shirts and oxfords, walking down a street in some far-off land. Kelly has traced over the squareness of their male hips in the skirts, making rectangles. In an accompanying photograph of a group of schoolgirls, Kelly traced over the figure of a girl, rounding her shoulders into a semicircle and making a rectangle of her arms and dress. We find that same shape, upside down and occupying almost all of the canvas in the nearby painting Blue Curve (1960).
Tablet 89 focuses on arcing and angled lines. Kelly has cut a color picture from a magazine; it depicts a dark V-neck sweater with white bands around the neck, arms and hem. The artist excised the bands, drawing them as disembodied forms on a sheet of lined notebook paper. Green Angle (1970), a 20-foot-long shaped canvas on the wall in the same gallery, could be the V-neck drawing inverted. It's intriguing that this painting, with its huge scale and dynamic presence, may have had its origins in a dorky 1960s pullover.
In another work from Tablet 89, ladies' white opera gloves are painted out to become curving lines. In still another, a newspaper photo has been clipped, cutting off someone's head. Its caption reads, "Albert Finney in the role of 'Luther.' " Kelly extended the lines of the actor's vestments and blocked off the image, cropping and isolating a detail from the costume of a 20th-century actor in the role of the 16th-century Protestant reformer. Inspiration is everywhere. Who knew?
As you walk through the show, you see that many of the drawings on old calendar pages, chunks of cardboard, used envelopes and the backs of invoices are workings and reworkings of shapes Kelly has lit upon. There's something immensely satisfying about seeing these intimate, offhand works. They're clues to Kelly's art but also to his life. A 1963 envelope was addressed to him at the Coenties Slip address, where the likes of Agnes Martin and Robert Indiana were his neighbors. There is a 1965 telegram from his mother, "PHONE ME CANT GET YOU." It's covered with little biomorphic pencil drawings.
While "Tablet" offers the viewer small personal glimpses into Kelly, it also acts as a diary for the artist himself. At a preview of the show at the Menil, the 81-year-old Kelly remarked that the drawings, fragments and scraps trigger many memories. One can only imagine.
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