Bending the rules: Ellsworth Kelly’s Colored Paper Images

I’ll be heading your way soon – I’m loving the Mediterranean

Wrote Ellsworth Kelly on a postcard[1] sent to the printmaker Kenneth Tyler and his wife Kay in early 1976: The postcard shows a Roman aqueduct called Pont du Gard, built in the first century CE. This three-tier aqueduct, with stone archways that reach almost 49 metres into the air, crosses the Gardon river in the south-east of France near the Mediterranean Sea. Kelly’s choice of postcard was telling, as his ground-breaking artistic practice had developed in France in the years following the second World War. Reacting to the notion that an artist’s job was to ‘compose’ an image, Kelly had started to instead depict traces of his everyday observations, such as the curve of a shadow across a book’s open pages, or the negative spaces he found in architectural forms. Kelly wrote that ‘instead of making a picture that was an interpretation of a thing seen, or a picture of invented content, I found an object and ‘presented’ it as itself alone… Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom’.[2] The repetition of the ‘D’ shape in the Pont du Gard aqueduct’s arches, framing the mountain in the distance, must have caught his eye: The parallel lines and arcs would be reflected in the works he was about to embark on with Kenneth Tyler that year, while the postcard itself recalled the unpublished works such as Pyramid postcard, a lithograph and screenprint that they had created in 1975.

Kelly and Tyler had been collaborating since 1970 at the Los Angeles print workshop Gemini Graphic Editions Limited. Here they produced immaculate prints such as Black Curve 1972 and Spectrum 1973. Tyler was well known for producing clean, precise prints through his command of new technologies such as the hydraulic printing press. But in the years since, Tyler had left Los Angeles, moving to New York State to begin Tyler Graphics. This new workshop had a more experimental outlook and was not afraid of producing hand-crafted work. Arriving in June of 1976, Kelly was eager to see what this new environment could provide his work. He was met with a radical proposition: to make a series of works out of paper, not on the surface of a paper. This must have been appealing to Kelly, as he had stated in his Notes of 1969 that negative space (often the paper or canvas) was to be seen as equally important as marks made on the paper.[3] This project would flatten this difference. Tyler, having continuously questioned and cajoled for better quality papers to be made available to artists in the United States, had begun to make his own. Just before he left Gemini in 1973, he had invited Robert Rauschenberg to create a series of handmade paper works, the Pages & Fuses series, partly in response to the limitations of commercially available paper types. Next, he worked with Frank Stella in 1975 to produce the hand-coloured Paper Reliefs series. Expanding upon this work, Tyler was creating a new palette of 75 stable colours for dying paper pulp. Experimenting with liquid dyes, powdered pigments and acrylic gouaches, Ellsworth Kelly was the perfect collaborator to investigate the properties of these bold new colours. The result would be the Colored Paper Images: a series of twenty-three prints where each print in the edition had variations in how the dyes would bleed across the page. Kelly, well known for producing works with clean and well-defined boundaries, would be confronted by this work.

Travelling to Hand Made Papers (HMP) workshop in Connecticut, Tyler and Kelly worked with John and Kathleen Koller, papermakers who had been producing small batches of high-quality handmade paper for Tyler since 1970. Kelly and Tyler would visit on a weekly basis over eight months.[4] Each print in the edition would start with the production of a freshly made ‘carrier’ sheet of unpigmented, still damp paper that Kelly would define a basic shape on with a rudimentary stencil. He would make these by bending metal rulers and flexible wooden strips that would be placed on the carrier sheet, often with additional masking tapes to help define lines. Later, custom stencils made from Lucite plastic were created for more complex shapes in the series. Tyler’s specially developed palette of dyed paper pulps had been made into swatches and pinned on the workshop wall. Kelly would select the colour that would be spooned into the stencil from household jars and mugs. This pulp would often sit a centimetre deep on the surface of the paper after the stencils were removed for pressing the work. Placed under a press the pulp would then be flattened, fusing with the still damp carrier sheet. Initially the bleed of colour beyond the original boundaries of the stencil would be substantial, so Tyler would use cotton blotters to reduce the spread of colour. Works such as Colored paper image II (dark green curves) show a veil of colour that has spread along its outer edges, while the differentiation in the amount of pulp used across the surface would give the work a textured appearance.

The unpredictability of this watery medium, and the inability for blotters, stencils and masking tape to fully contain defined areas of colour, defined the project. According to Tyler, Kelly did not see the series as successful, despite the positive reactions of both collectors and critics to the series. Commercially the works sold well, and one reviewer was to remark that the wash of colours meant ‘Kelly is baring his heart now as well as his eye’.[5] Tyler would reflect that the Colored Paper Images amounted to ‘a challenge to the artist’.[6] Despite Tyler’s positive view of this work, ‘he lost interest in papermaking and the watercolor effect with soft edges’.[7]

Despite Kelly’s lack of enthusiasm for continuing to work in this medium, the works would become a precursor to one of the most well-known series that Tyler would create with David Hockney in 1978. Hockney, having seen the watery bleed of the edges seemed to understand that this made it the perfect medium for depicting the optical blurs and bleed of looking through water itself. His Paper Pool series were the result of this.

Perhaps the most compelling view of this work was Kelly’s statement on the series that accompanied the Smithsonian travelling exhibition Paper as medium, curated by Jane M. Farmer in 1978. Here Kelly came to frame the series not as an exercise in papermaking but an activity that sat somewhere between mediums that he was familiar with:

I was intrigued with the idea of another way of putting color to paper and think of the Colored Paper Images series as wet collages which are a cross between painting and collage. I have always worked in collage and these piece are a natural outgrowth of that process [8]

By David Greenhalgh, Assistant Curator, Kenneth E Tyler Collection, National Gallery of Australia, November 2022.

[1] Kenneth E Tyler Collection archive, National Gallery of Australia. See B01.03

[2] Ellsworth Kelly, ‘Notes from 1969’ as reproduced in Kristine Stiles & Peter Selz, Theories and documents of contemporary art: A sourcebook of artists’ writings (2nd edition). University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, p. 119.

[3] Ibid. p. 119.

[4] See ‘My paper-making journey’ a speech originally given by Kenneth Tyler at the International Print Center New York, transcript (n.d.) from the Kenneth Tyler Collection digital-born records archive.

[5] Unidentified press clipping, Kenneth Tyler Collection archive A08.03, January 1977, p. 6

[6] Kenneth Tyler in conversation with the author, August 11, 2022

[7] See ‘My paper-making journey’ a speech originally given by Kenneth Tyler at the International Print Center New York, transcript (n.d.) from the Kenneth Tyler Collection digital-born records archive.

[8] Ellsworth Kelly quoted in Jane M. Farmer, 1978. Paper as medium. The Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service. p. 41

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