This is the second installment of our three-part series on Ellsworth Kelly. For the first installment, click here.
In his book Color in Art, historian John Gage suggests that our taste for primary color in Modernist art began when we were still "in the nursery." I remember once, in grade school, a teacher rationing quarter-sized globs of tempera paint onto a paper plate on my desk. Carefully, he guided the class through the blending of red, yellow, and blue, and the resulting alchemy of color stunned me. With these three colors, he insisted, any other color is possible.
In a child's awestruck mind, everything is magical. I had yet to learn about the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, who developed a theory about light responsible for our current understanding of the primary colors. Still, his findings (compiled in Optiks of 1704), are only an excerpt from an extensive color dialogue that has preoccupied artists and alchemists alike for centuries.
When I look at Three Panels: Red, Dark Blue, Dark Green (1986), I remember Gage's assessment. The two and three-colored birds that Ellsworth Kelly studied as a young boy coincide, as some critics suggest, with his two and three-colored canvases. But while it is tempting to linger on such a biographical understanding of Kelly's work, the paintings themselves engage in a far more universal discourse. Kelly gives shape to his canvases, which recall to me the Russian artist Kandinsky's dilemma.
Kandinsky believed shape to be as essential to color as Newton's light. He inherited this view from his instructor, Adolf Hoelzel. Hoelzel attempted to assign shape to color, arguing yellow to be a triangle, red a circle, and blue a square (as illustrated here.) His pupil disagreed. Wasn't blue, instead, a sphere – recalling oceans and atmospheres that blanket the earth?
In the same way (though for his own reasons), Kelly fuses shape with color in an attempt to replicate nature. The first canvas in Kelly's triptych is red and convexly triangular; the second, dark blue and hexagonal; but on the third – where we might expect yellow – Kelly gives us dark green in a twisted rectangular form. This green activates tension within the work; while it harmonizes with blue, it is directly opposite red on the color wheel, creating a sense of disquiet.
Let's pause. Here, Kelly is using a variation of the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) color scheme. Discovered in 1861 by the Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell, RGB was an altogether different understanding of color. By adding red, green, and blue light, Maxwell was able to create pure white, and consequently, the world's first color photograph. (It was this new spectrum of additive primaries that made Emerald City on MGM's studio set glow so green in The Wizard of Oz.) With the advent of color television, red, green, and blue debuted as the primary colors of science.
Our eyes ingest the world through light, blending, as though on a palette, red, green, and blue. In Red, Dark Blue, Dark Green, Kelly is interested in the preservation of untainted vision: that is, capturing color and shape at the point directly before it is recognized, labeled, and filed behind human eyes. His use of shape, though taken from nature, is fragmented, obscured, and intentionally without context. For this reason, our interaction with Kelly's work is purely visual – an almost scientific intake of information – as Kelly himself once said, "…if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract."