Ellsworth Kelly: Windows

A Window on the Paris Years

March 6, 2019By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
"Studies for Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris" (small version, 1949). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio
“Studies for Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris” (small version, 1949). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), one of America’s great abstract painters, is the subject of a small exhibition at the Centre Pompidou.

Kelly came to France as a soldier in 1944 and returned to Paris after finishing his art studies in Boston. He lived here from 1948 to ’54,  roughly the period covered by the exhibition, which centers on a gift Kelly made to the Centre Pompidou in 2015 of “Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris” (1949). The  curators note that this time was “a period of outstanding inventiveness” for Kelly, during which he “laid the foundations for all his work to come and defined the principles of an aesthetic he would adhere to for more than half a century.”

"Window VI" (1950). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Hulya Kolabas, courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio
“Window VI” (1950). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Hulya Kolabas, courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

Kelly was inspired by his wanderings around Paris, but you won’t see any Eiffel Towers here. What caught his eye was the city’s windows, but he was interested in the shapes he saw rather than what they were. While he was in Paris,  he made a series of works called – you guessed it – “Windows.”

You might think that Kelly whipped out these minimalist paintings in a flash, but no. The exhibition shows that a lot of thought and work went into each one as the artist sketched study after study, took photographs and experimented with color. Much of the exhibition consists of these studies, along with the six completed works from the series.

"Window I" (1949. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio
“Window I” (1949). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

The structure of a window, flattened on canvas, was all that counted for Kelly in what he called those “already-mades,” which involves transferring bits of reality to canvas. The spying of the shape was the creative moment for him, not the process of making the work.

The show, which continues in another room on the fifth floor, also includes some off-theme work thrown in for good measure: a couple of later, more colorful paintings from Pompidou’s collection, and a few of his lovely drawings of plants, whose minimalist lines reminded me of Matisse’s drawings. Kelly’s obsession with windows also reminded me of Matisse, but Kelly is looking at windows, while Matisse is looking through them, and Matisse’s windows are transparent, while Kelly’s are opaque.

"White Over Black III" (2015). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Ron Amstutz, courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio
“White Over Black III” (2015). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Ron Amstutz, courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

The exhibition in the main room on the fourth floor ends with Kelly ‘s last work, “White over Black III” (2015), which, appropriately, looks like a return to the works of his Paris years.

When my friend Cathy saw this show, she described it as “minimalist and meditative.” I couldn’t have put it better.

One Comment

  • I so enjoyed your review of the Ellsworth Kelly show at the Pompidou, because these early works (with his last 2015 one) are my favorites. I remember reading somewhere that he was sitting around dejected in Paris – “because in those days, Picasso was the one we had to beat” – and suddenly he saw a typical windowed facade in a different way. And that moment began his minimalist path. No doubt it began, as your friend Cathy described, from an aha meditative moment.

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