Ellsworth Kelly’s only freestanding building, Austin, is a sparkling gem in the vast collection of the Blanton Museum of Art. It is also a tangible legacy of the artist’s presence in the city whose name he gave to his latest work. Kelly’s posthumous gift to college has made Austin an artistic destination and the premier place to appreciate her work.
Along with the iconic monument, the museum also has several of Kelly’s works in its permanent collection, offering an in-depth study of the artist’s multitudes. But perhaps nowhere can you experience Kelly’s fantastical mind and world better than through Blanton’s brand new exhibition featuring the artist’s personal postcards.
Previously reserved for Kelly’s friends and at rare public displays, the postcards are now part of ‘Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards’, a traveling exhibit that arrived at the Blanton on August 27.
Until November 27, around 160 postcards covering the period from 1949 to 2005 will be exhibited. The collection first appeared at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in 2021 before heading to Austin. Curated by Ian Berry in collaboration with the Ellsworth Kelly studio and with Jessica Eisenthal, the collection reveals a new facet of the emblematic American artist.
The series traces the artist’s many homes and travels, featuring famous scenes altered by collage. Although they served as an effective drawing tool, they were also utilitarian with notes to friends written on the back, somewhat inadvertently placing Kelly in the mail art movement of the 1960s, which saw the rise artists “publishing” their work through the postal service. .
Carter E. Foster, assistant director of curatorial affairs at the Blanton and friend of the late Kelly, wanted to continue the museum’s dedication to his work, but also presented the exhibit at the Blanton in hopes of delighting longtime fans with a new perspective on the famous artist. “[This collection] shows a relatively unknown side of him that will surprise people who feel familiar with his work,” says Foster.
Unlike the “monumentality of the Austin building,” there’s an intimacy to the postcards, says Foster, both in scale and feeling. Kelly was notoriously private, even refraining from signing her art to avoid producing a recognizable style. His discomfort giving interviews early in his career for fear of confusing the purpose of his art had the intended opposite effect, giving his work an aura of unknowability.
But unlike the finely crafted works that define his career, Kelly’s postcards reveal an artist’s work in progress. In a series of lunchtime lectures on Kelly at the Blanton in 2019, Kelly researcher Tricia Y. Paik described them as a “traveling laboratory for her ideas.”
His experimentation with scale, distortion and collage in miniature can be seen in later work throughout his career. In a vertical postcard from 1957, a thick, jagged white band juts out over an image of the Statue of Liberty, splitting the figure in two. In the simple but striking image, Foster sees a resemblance to Kelly’s later work of totem-like sculptures in the 1970s, such as Curve X, a steel monument produced in 1974.
Many of his postcards draw on this imagery: sharp geometric shapes and photographs cut from magazines and newspapers juxtaposed with scenes depicted on existing postcards, distorting what the eye expects to see. A human nose becomes the prow of a ship, a partially naked female body interrupts a landscape, a torn black and white paper distorts the horizon of a city. They’re whimsical yet jarring, an intriguing look into the mind of one of the great artists of the 20th century.
In “Study for Dark Gray and White Rectangle I”, created in 1977 and the cover of the book Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards, the eye is drawn to a piece of black paper superimposed on a bright blue sky and foamy, crashing waves. A white rectangular shape glued next to black seems to turn around, as if to invite the viewer to come closer. In the gaping black space, Foster sees an invitation to step through the door to explore new dimensions.
It’s the perfect image to portray the entire collection, a portal to Kelly’s previously mysterious inner world. But even more than exploiting the postcards for insight into the career and humanity of the artist who created them, Foster hopes visitors will simply appreciate Kelly’s playful spirit. As Paik said in his talk, these postcards are a glimpse of that.
“These postcard collages fit in many ways with how Ellsworth Kelly sees the world,” Paik said. “In a way, they’re the next best thing after seeing the world with your eyes.”
CREDIT: Collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, Ellsworth Kelly Foundation (3)