The art world mourns the loss of American abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, who passed away on 27 December 2015 at the age of 92.
Amongst the many print editions Kelly produced with Ken Tyler between 1970 and 1980, the Colored paper images of 1976 are unique for their richly textured surfaces and nuanced fields of colour. Here we share Assistant Curator Julia Greenstreet’s discussion of this landmark project, recently published in Workshop: The Kenneth Tyler Collection.
My work has always been about vision, the process of seeing … I’ve always been interested in things that I see that don’t make sense out of context, that lead you into something else.[i]
For six decades across painting, sculpture and print, Ellsworth Kelly has explored and elucidated a fundamental pillar of the human experience—our perception of the world around us. Despite its abstract vocabulary of flat, simple shapes and prismatic colour, Kelly’s art is grounded in observed form; a distillation of unassuming sources such as barn doors, shadows falling on a flight of stairs, or a crushed paper cup, into their essential shapes.
From 1970 to 1980 Kelly worked with Tyler at both Gemini GEL and TGL to produce editions in a range of new techniques that extended his distinctive vocabulary. However it was with the Colored paper images—made entirely of coloured, pressed paper pulp—that Kelly truly broke new ground. When he decided he no longer wanted to make an edition of collage aquatints as originally planned, Tyler was quick to propose an alternative, taking the artist on a visit to the HMP paper mill and providing him with samples from his treasured collection of handmade Japanese papers. As Tyler recalls, ‘the rest was up to Kelly … We began very modestly. Kelly brought these samples home, and we played’.[ii] What began as ‘play’ developed into an eight-month long collaboration between Kelly, Tyler and HMP’s John and Kathleen Koller, resulting in a series of 23 variant editions.
Colored paper images was the first TGL project executed exclusively in paper pulp[iii] and Kelly’s first foray into the medium. Tyler wanted to extend beyond standard manufactured dyes in order to provide Kelly with ‘a new palette of colors for papermaking’[iv] and proceeded to research various types of colouring agents and their properties, from powdered pigments to acrylic gouaches. Of the 75 colours Tyler developed, Kelly used 50. Images were created by spooning cotton pulp onto a wet base sheet through image moulds constructed from bent metal rulers, strips of wood and plexiglass. When placed under pressure in the press the coloured pulp shapes and white base sheet fused together, causing dyes to seep beyond the boundaries of form in diaphanous veils of colour.
(left) Ellsworth Kelly, ‘Colored paper image II (dark green curves)’, 1976, paper pulp, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1979 © Ellsworth Kelly (right) Ellsworth Kelly, ‘Colored paper image X (blue with gray)’, 1976, paper pulp, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1977 © Ellsworth Kelly
This marked an astonishing departure from the rigorous linearity characteristic of Kelly’s oeuvre. Pristine finishes were relinquished in favour of the richly textured surfaces of pressed paper pulp. Loosely hand-mixed pulps transformed into nuanced colour fields, as in the delicate amorphous clouds of Colored paper image X (blue with grey) and Colored paper image II (dark green curves). While this emphasis on textured surfaces was unprecedented in Kelly’s print oeuvre, curator Richard Axsom notes that it was connected to ideas of random surface effects the artist had been exploring in weathering steel and wood sculptures.[v]
The Colored paper images stand as a landmark in both Kelly’s practice and that of TGL. In addition, they played a significant role in encouraging other artists to experiment with paper pulp; David Hockney, for example, was inspired to produce his influential series of paper works, Paper pools, after seeing Kelly’s ‘stunningly beautiful’[vi] pieces. Appearing on the cover of an American Artist issue dedicated to ‘the revolution in paper’, the Colored paper images were hailed as representing ‘a new mode of expression’.[vii]
Workshop: The Kenneth Tyler Collection is available from the NGA shop and online.
[i] Ellsworth Kelly quoted in Siri Engberg, ‘Ellsworth Kelly’, in Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter (eds), Bits & pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole: Walker Art Center collections, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2005, p 315, originally published in Mark Rosenthal (ed), Artists at Gemini GEL, Harry N Abrams Inc, New York, 1993, p 83.
[ii] Ken Tyler quoted in Marlene Schiller, ‘Footnotes: the cover’, American Artist, August 1977, p 12.
[iii] Ronald Davis’s 1975 Intaglio print series combined handmade and coloured paper with intaglio printing, while Frank Stella’s Paper reliefs series of paper pulp reliefs of the same year incorporated collage and handcolouring.
[iv] Ellsworth Kelly: Colored paper images, Tyler Graphics Ltd, Bedford Village, 1976, unpaginated.
[v] Richard Axsom, The prints of Ellsworth Kelly: a catalogue raisonné 1949–1985, Hudson Hills Press, New York, in association with the American Federation of Arts, 1987, p 116.
[vi] David Hockney quoted in Jane Kinsman, The art of collaboration: the big Americans, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p 57, originally published in Nikos Stangos (ed), David Hockney: Paper pools, Thames and Hudson, London, 1980, p 100.
[vii] Schiller, p 6.