Kelly's intuitive spectrum

All the breathing space in this collage of 1953, made of closely juxtaposed strips of gummed commercial colored papers, is found in the hues, densities, and relationships of the colors. Perspective has nothing to do with it.

Linear drawing is not a factor. The image's construction is an ordered flatness. So it is in the colors themselves that different depths and weights and spaces are contained or let loose.

Ellsworth Kelly was living in Paris at the time. He was in touch with Jean Arp and his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who exploited chance and color in unusual ways. Kelly had recently produced some collages in which spectrum colors were arranged by chance. The artist was invigorated by the way chance could free his work from predetermination and bring it closer to the unpredictability he saw in nature. To a degree, these works were also freed from himself by such tactics.

This collage, however, was one of a series in which chance plays less of a part. It is included in a show of the remarkable collection of modern drawings, or works on paper, gathered by native Clevelander Agnes Gund and now at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The viewer's eye travels across the band of changing colors in this collage, aware that they do relate logically to each other. They do not imitate a rainbow spectrum precisely. But neither do they make random leaps from one color to the next. Chance is probably still a factor, given that the artist had a limited range of commercial colors at his disposal, but the arrangement of hues is the result of an intuitive ordering.

Kelly did not, however, develop these intuitive studies and make large-scale paintings with the same idea until the late 1960s. At that time they might have (incorrectly) seemed part of contemporary trends such as Op art (in which optical effects were exploited) or worthy of the unhelpful label "Hard-edge painting" (which unduly emphasizes edges), neither of which were Kelly's main interest.

Kelly's work might be seen as prefiguring both tendencies, not to mention the later Minimalism, but he was independent of them all - he was always his own man. He was far more interested in spaces than edges, more interested in clear, contemplative color than optical dynamism.

This art is part of the current exhibition 'Drawing Modern: Works From the Agnes Gund Collection,' at The Cleveland Museum of Art exclusively, through Jan. 11.

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