Mixing It Up

Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue," on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, offers a group of paintings that'll seriously mess with your eyes. It's dizzying, walking into this gallery and experiencing these large canvases in the titular colors for the first time, and it's thoughtful of the museum to provide benches for those who may feel a need to regain their balance. Once you've recovered from the vertigo, the experience turns to dazzling as your eye is pulled and pushed by the tense harmony that the artist has established in these vibrant paintings.

Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, this is the first exhibition to focus on this pivotal body of work, in which Kelly conducted an investigation of figure and ground relationships using two primary colors (red and blue) and a secondary color (green). At the heart of the exhibit are three paintings: Red Blue Green (1963), from San Diego; Blue Green Red (1963), from the Metropolitan in New York; and Blue Green Red I (1965), from Amsterdam. The first appears in all the art history books and was the only painting from this body of work considered crucial to the artist's 1996-1997 retrospective (at least, it was the only one to appear in the catalog).

Ellsworth Kelly was born 80 years ago last month in Newburgh, New York, and spent most of his childhood in northern New Jersey. An early introduction to bird-watching awakened the passion for shape and color that has informed his work. He put in two short years at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before being inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He requested and was assigned to a camouflage unit, a volunteer company made up of mostly artists. After the war, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; graduating in 1948, he left for France, where he lived until 1954, thereby escaping the dominating influence of abstract expressionism in those years. And that just about brings us to the works gathered here.

These paintings are unique in Kelly's body of work. Those that immediately preceded this series (and it's worth stressing that these paintings were not conceived as a series, but rather presented a problem to which Kelly kept returning) were monochromatic panels joined together to see how the colors played off each other. The works that immediately followed were often shaped monochrome canvases that became the figure to the wall's ground. In the paintings of "Red Green Blue," Kelly engaged in "a struggle to get figure and ground separated, to get shape to stand alone and edges to get as quiet as they need be."

That was a pretty radical agenda in the early to mid-'50s. Even Jackson Pollock was still working within the context of a figure-ground dialectic, as were Rauschenberg and Johns and, later, Warhol and others. To "separate" figure and ground is to undermine centuries of painting conventions, in the West and the East. To "separate" figure and ground is to set them adrift, no longer dependent, one on the other, for contextual meaning. And without context, the ground begins to shift beneath your feet.

Take a painting like Red Green Blue (1964), owned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In most of these works, the color order in the title seems to indicate the two "figures" against the "ground." The Walker's is the exception that proves the rule. The painting appears to be a series of expanding boxes, the red at the lower left corner of the canvas surrounded by a green box enclosed in the "ground" of a blue box that fills in the rest of the canvas. But what if they're receding boxes, as if you were looking down a corridor, or through a series of doorways, so that the small red box now reads as ground? Such a reading is supported by the Dutch Blue Green Red I, where the title order describes the painting from left to right. That green space in the middle sure looks like the ground to me, yet the title, if we follow the example of the San Diego painting, suggests that the curved red "figure" on the right is actually the ground.

There is further evidence for this confounding of figure and ground. Step around a corner in the gallery, and you leave these pulsating paintings behind for a moment and enter the more studious segment of "Red Green Blue." Here are numerous studies, mostly small works on paper, showing Kelly teasing out the workings of the figure-ground relationship in drawings and painted sketches. We can see him working out the spatial configurations of some of these paintings, the shapes of which were suggested by a photograph of trapezes that the artist took while in France (and are included here). Of particular interest is a series of studies for the Walker Red Green Blue, in which the recession reading is made clearer, the green and blue segments appearing more forward than the red. The affinity between green and blue (they sit next to each other on the spectrum) and their common antipathy toward red allow them to, in a sense, combine forces against the more vivid color and moderate it, even in those paintings where it dominates.

There's another thing that happens when you separate figure and ground, when you "get shape to stand alone," especially when you're limiting yourself to three colors. If the color defines the shape, and shape can be coaxed into standing alone, then color, too, is liberated, set free from gesture, set free from representing anything other than "red" or "blue" or "green." (Kelly has told of being charmed by a French child who, touching various objects, identified them by their color, not by what they were.) In liberating color, Kelly liberates us to appreciate the abstraction in the world around us, and frees us from pigeonholing everything in it into questionable categories. That liberation opens us up. Every time I've visited "Red Green Blue," I've walked out with refreshed eyes, into a world made new.