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“He was always about the particular. The completely particular. This particular shape, this particular form, this particular color…everything is completely unique and particular,” so says Yve-Alain Bois, art historian and professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, about the celebrated late artist Ellsworth Kelly. In this conversation, Bois shares what he learned about Kelly’s life, artistic process, and interest in the particular while working on the artist’s catalogue raisonné.

Yve-Alain Bois profile photo

Yve-Alain Bois. Photo courtesy of Yve-Alain Bois. All rights reserved

More to Explore

Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1 book

Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks Gallery gallery information

“Ellsworth Kelly, Who Shaped Geometries on a Bold Scale, Dies at 92,” New York Times news article

“An Appraisal: Scott Rothkopf, Chief Curator at the Whitney, Recalls Ellsworth Kelly,” New York Times news article

Transcript

JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

YVE-ALAIN BOIS: In Paris, he was always thought as too American, possibly because he didn’t speak French very well, or almost not. When he returned to America, he was felt his work was understood as too European. So, he was always a little off.

CUNO: In this episode, I speak with art historian Yve-Alain Bois about the artist Ellsworth Kelly.

The great American painter Ellsworth Kelly died on December 27, 2015.

I first met Ellsworth in 1989, when as director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art we hosted a retrospective exhibition of his prints. He was instantly charming, friendly, and giving of his time. Two years later, when I became director of the Harvard University Art Museums, I called Ellsworth with questions about how we might best conserve an outdoor sculpture of his that had been damaged from years of exposure to New England’s harsh winters. The work was a red and blue sculpture that he’d exhibited on the US pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. He responded to my question by saying that he’d rarely done multicolored sculpture and had never been very happy with the Harvard one, and if we were going to work on it anyway, why didn’t we have it painted white?

Then in 1993, Ellsworth gave the Harvard museums a vertical sculpture made in 1974 of weathering steel and titled Curve Ten. He gave it in honor of the great collector and Harvard benefactor, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. When Ellsworth saw the sculpture installed in the museum it had rust marks on its surface, which I took to be natural to weathered steel. It wasn’t. Not to Ellsworth. As he hadn’t yet actually given it to us, he took it back and reworked it to look brand new with a glass-bead blasted surface like the sculptures he was making in the 1990s.

Eleven years later, as director of the Art Institute of Chicago, I commissioned Ellsworth to make a large white fan sculpture for a wall of the garden in the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing. I imagined that it would have a matte surface, like all of Ellsworth’s sculptures I’d known. But when it came off the truck, it had a glossy surface and beautifully reflected the dappled colors of the garden’s plantings. When I asked him about it, he said simply, “Well, I’m not so interested in matte surfaces anymore.”

Three sculptures, three experiences with Ellsworth—each one an instance of his renewing, or in one case his wanting to renew, his past sculptural practice in the manner in which he was then now working.

Ellsworth had a restless and curious mind up until the day he died at age 92. When I called him some months before, I asked how he was and he said he’d been in the studio working. I said, thinking it was funny, “What color were you working on?” And he said he hadn’t yet gotten to the color. He’d been putting ground on his canvases. That was Ellsworth. A celebrated artist in every medium, with new commissions for sculpture on three continents and five exhibitions in New York alone to mark his 90th birthday, still putting ground on his canvases himself because that was central to his painting practice: as in his sculptures, his paintings were as much about their quality of surface as they were about their shape, size, and color. For Ellsworth, every new work was a new adventure, a new way of working, a new way of making things of extraordinary visual delight.

Ellsworth lived to see published the first volume of his catalogue raisonné, the authoritative account of his career to be published in six volumes by Cahiers d’Art, the famous publisher of Picasso’s catalogue raisonné, and written by the eminent modernist art historian Yve-Alain Bois, professor of art history in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

I’ve known Yve-Alain as a friend and colleague for many years, and I recently called him to talk about Ellsworth and the catalogue raisonné, and I started by asking, just how involved was Ellsworth in the preparation of the catalogue?

BOIS: Because he was interested in his legacy and he was an extraordinary archivist. So, when working on the chronology, which sometimes was a little fuzzy in his mind, he would nevertheless recall a particular detail that would bring a particular sketch. And from that particular sketch, it would bring another particular sketch and then he would always go this way. It would be kind of like a strange labyrinth, in which in the end we would reconstruct the whole thing. And sometimes, of course, we disagreed on certain things, but not much. I mean, it was just a matter of little details. You know, like he would be absolutely sure that he had done that thing in November ’51, and I would demonstrate that it would not be possible. And so okay, okay, you know, okay, okay. I would find documents that contradicted his memory. But it didn’t happen very often. So, it was just a matter of checking things or double-checking things. And he was, of course, very interested in the way I would, you know, dig more about all these years in France. I must admit that when I started the catalogue raisonné, I had already worked quite a lot on those French years, first with this text I wrote, which was in the beginning of my interest in Kelly, for the exhibition, this French show, the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris and in the National Gallery in Washington. And then later on at the Sackler, when you were there, for that show we mounted together on Ellsworth Kelly’s drawings and collages from this period. I worked quite a lot on the French years of Kelly. And so I thought, you know, well, it’s okay. This is, you know, a piece of cake. I’m going to do that in two minutes. Well, not at all, because I—working more and discovering more of his archive, and more things that I didn’t know, I realized how much I didn’t know and how rewarding it would be to dig and dig and dig further. And so the whole structure of the catalogue raisonné actually changed. I thought of writing, you know, normal, fairly short entries for each work, and then a very long, you know, monographic introduction, so to speak, or maybe even just a short introduction, but then a big book at the end that would be one particular volume. And I just had to change, because there was so much that I was discovering on those works that I realized it’s silly not to, you know, expand on the works themselves. There would be no monograph at the end, no independent monograph, and there would be no big introduction. There would be just sometimes very, very elaborate entries, some of the manuscripts which are—you know—it was twenty pages long.

CUNO: Yeah, they’re essay-like.

BOIS: Yeah. Each work has an essay. So, the early works, when he was a student, they’re very short. But you know, some of the entries, like for the window or for major important—you know, really important works, turning points in his career—some of the entries are very, very long.

CUNO: Yeah. Well, I want to get back to that, both about the structure of the book and about Ellsworth’s uncanny obsession with his past and his ability to gather from his archive, things that you needed to have at hand. But I want to get back to the question of Cahiers d’Art itself. People may not know that Cahiers d’Art was a Paris-based arts magazine and publishing enterprise funded by Zervos, Christian Zervos, in 1926. And it was a serious journal of art and ideas, with articles written by, for example, Paul Éluard, Samuel Beckett, Jacques Lacan and others, and with reproductions of works by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Ernst, and Brancusi, Calder, Duchamp. It was a big deal. It also published the famous thirty-three volume catalogue raisonné of the works of Picasso, compiled by Zervos and published over forty-six years, from 1932 to ’78. Ellsworth lived in Paris, obviously, from ’48 to ’53. So he lived in the era of Cahiers d’Art. Did he ever meet Zervos?

BOIS: I don’t know if he met Zervos, but he met his publications. He was given very early on, one of the publications of—I think when he arrived in Paris or just a year after—one of the early publications by Zervos on Greek Cycladic art, published by Morancé, I think. And you know, this volume is still in his library. And he also purchased—I don’t know when exactly, probably not until the sixties—the Zervos catalogue raisonné. It’s in the library.

CUNO: The Picasso?

BOIS: The Picasso, yeah.

CUNO: Yeah, yeah.

BOIS: And the whole idea of having the book published by Cahiers d’Art, I found a little by chance. Staffan Ahrenberg decided to resuscitate Cahiers d’Art, which had basically stopped any activity. After the end of the Picasso catalogue raisonné, they were not doing anything. So, he bought this company and decided to start again the journal. His idea was to do the first special issue on Ellsworth, so he went to see Ellsworth. And we had not decided who would be the actual publisher, you know, of the catalogue raisonné of Ellsworth. Our idea was more, as been in many other enterprise of the same kind, which is that the foundation of the artist is actually the real publisher. And there is a distributor, which pretends to be a publisher, like Yale did for Rothko, which was completely done by the National Gallery and the Rothko Foundation, or Yale did for Barnett Newman, which was completely done by the Barnett Newman Foundation. So, we thought it was going to be that model. But you know, Ahrenberg decided to say, “Well, why not me?” And then he said something which was so extraordinary that I told Ellsworth, “You are not going to hear that very often.” He said, “You can do as long as you want, you can have as many supporting illustrations as you want. Every single work on which there is an entry, we’ll use some color, full page.” I mean, it was just like insane. You never heard a publisher doing that. I told Ellsworth, “This is not what you hear. I can tell you, this is not common.”

CUNO: Yeah, yeah. Well, tell us what is a catalogue raisonné? What function will it serve for scholars in the future?

BOIS: Well, you know, a catalogue raisonné usually is just the tombstone, as they call it, the identity card of each work. You know, what titles did it get, when it was shown, when it was first commented on, a kind of bibliography, exhibition story, provenance, and all that. That’s what a catalogue raisonné usually has. But I found myself often frustrated that it’s not more raisonné, that it’s often just—I mean, the catalogue raisonné of Zervos is a typical example. It’s just a, you know, an accumulation of photographs with a title at the end. A list of, you know, titles and dates at the end of the book. And it’s very unsatisfying for, you know, there’s no real reasoning there. And so I always dreamt of a catalogue raisonné that would have real serious discussion of the works. And in the case of the first volume, because—especially from ’48 to ’53, when Ellsworth works in Paris—I mean, he works in ’54, too, but he doesn’t paint in ’54, so that there is no work from ’54 in that first volume. But during this period it’s really when he invents himself. And really, almost every new painting or relief—there’s no sculpture yet—is a completely new departure. He really invents so many things, and so fast, during this period, that almost every entry is a kind of little mini essay on a new problem, if not a new problem, a new solution. There is very, very few entries that are more than one work. I think that the second volume will start being quite different than that, because when he comes to New York, he actually starts working more in series. And so I think that in that particular volume, there is maybe five entries that are on more than one work. I think that in the second volume, it will half and half, and I think in the third volume, the proportion would be reversed. It would be very few entries on just one work.

I’m not going to write a new essay on each possible curve of each Totem that he made because I’m not Superman. Because the problem doesn’t change so much from one Totem to the next. But in France during those years, that’s where he really invents himself, and the speed at which he does it. I mean, it’s constantly in the letters he writes to his friends: “I don’t have the time to finish on my ideas. I don’t have—” you know, he’s constantly late on his own brilliance. Which is also why he always characterized this period as the most important period of his production, as the most happy period of his life, even though he was a loner and didn’t have a huge, you know, circle of friends in Paris, and so it’s also why he knows so much about this period, because I think right from the start, he was quite conscious that what he was doing was new. And I think that particularly when John Coplans started working on him and the Coplans article on Kelly’s French shows appeared in Artforum in December of ’69, and was, you know, very, very striking to everyone because people didn’t know then about this work. I think that around that time—it’s in ’68, ’69—’68 is when he gives to MoMA Painting For a Large Wall, also. So, he started paying a lot more attention to his early work and started archiving it more, you know, in a more logistic manner and so forth, i.e., looking a lot at his early drawings and sketchbooks and, you know, mining his own work and many things. So, basically, he has been thinking about his early work with more focus since ’68, ’69, when Coplans started to work on him.

JIM CUNO: So, we talked a little bit earlier about his obsessive preoccupation with his early work. It is staggering that he kept so much of it and took care of it so well over those difficult years, those first years, and that it would be available to you. I think that you said something, that there were just two paintings that you’ve lost track of. I mean, otherwise, all that production is known and its current location is known.

BOIS: One of the great things about him is that there will not be production of fakes. At least in terms of paintings, reliefs, and sculpture. That will not happen. It can’t. It’s just impossible. [chuckles]

CUNO: I remember once being with you in the studio, and you’re teasing Ellsworth over a postcard that you’d written as maybe a teenager. You had something to say in the postcard about a painting that you’d seen in a painting of his you’d seen and you didn’t like some aspect of it or something. And you were teasing him that he hadn’t replied to you and
your postcard. And he rushed back to his archive and pulled the postcard out of the archive and brought it to you and said, “You didn’t put on a return address.”

BOIS: I have to correct the story, actually, because I said that story actually quite—I mentioned this actually several times. And just two days before he died, I actually find, by pure chance—I was trying to find the date of trips I made in New York with—to try to find out what the first time I saw—was another work of art that was called Heart Beats Dust by Jean Dupuy. I wanted to find out exactly. Because I knew I saw it in New York, I knew it saw it in the gallery, but I couldn’t find exactly which trip. So I was looking at a whole bunch of letters that I wrote to people, and for whatever reason, in a bunch of letters to and from Meyer Schapiro, I found this postcard from Ellsworth. And in fact, he had answered me. [chuckles] So, it was just two days before he died. And I almost called him. I’m glad that I didn’t, because I thought maybe I would like, feel, oh my God, I killed him, you know? I was totally flabbergasted. I thought, like, this is really, really weird. So, he had answered me. And yeah, what I’d written to him was a letter, and it was pure drivel. I’m glad he found it, because he never threw anything away. And he gave me a copy, which immediately I lost.

CUNO: Tell us more about your thoughts of the sort of psychology of the person who keeps such things. Because every note he took, every sketch he made, every collage he made, at a time in which he was fairly impoverished and busily working away, he found some way to keep care of things.

BOIS: Yeah, it took him a while to get back the works. I mean, I think probably he got—I don’t know exactly what—if he took with him his sketchbooks, but certainly the paintings and sculpture, he had to have a deal and he pay—you know, and it took him a lot of pay. With the Cunard, you know, transatlantic liner—it took him five years even though he was indeed very poor. I think it relates to another topic. Which is this capacity that he has, as you mentioned in the beginning—I take just example of the last exhibition which is last year at Matthew Marks Gallery, where some of the works were based on collage that he made in the fifties and sixties. And unlike any other artist that I know of, when he decides to realize in painting a final collage, a final study for a work that he had done before, it doesn’t make any difference that he could have done it in 1958 as a painting, but he didn’t, because he always ran out of time, with regard to his ideas. So, he goes back to it fifty years later, says, “Oh, I didn’t do that. I could that. It’s interesting.”

It has to be exact. He reproduces—it’s exactly the collage to the scale of a painting. He doesn’t allow himself to edit whatsoever. And it’s the same idea when he does this thing which is called a transfer. When he records a surface that he sees in the world, something that has to be flat. And he just records it as a Chinese archeologist would frottage on old Chinese tombs, or whatever. It’s just a matter of recording without interpretation, without editorial decisions. And when he finds the ice cream cone flattened on the street and he likes the shape that it makes, the first thing he does is paste it in some piece of paper to keep it. And then eventually, a few days or weeks or months later, or, you know, even years later, he said, “Oh, I should realize it was perfect. Yeah, I liked it at first and I was right to like it. It’s exactly what I want to do.” He would do it exactly. He would re-copy—he would just trace the exact proportion and just expand it on a shaped canvas. That’s all he would do. Nothing would be added to the shape that struck him at first. And the idea that collage by him, or something that he finds in the world and records as such, it’s the same. There is no difference for him. There is no personal subjective, added value, or the fact that one comes from a doodle that he made and the other one’s something found in the street.

The subjective act is just the choice. This is something that befell on me. I don’t know why I like it, but I like it, and I’m going to do it. That I find amazing because I don’t know if there’s any other artist who would be able to look at one’s own work from ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years before, without wanting to—if you want to realize something from a drawing to a painting, without wanting to change it. That’s really unique. I don’t know any other artist like that.

His past has always been a kind of cornucopia from which he could select things at any time. He never abandoned anything. He was very critical of his own work and sometimes there are works that he didn’t like. In general, the works that he kind of tended to discard were works that were too much historically bound. Like, there’s a whole series of work that he made in the late sixties that had to do with some kind of optical illusion or forced perspectival views, and he never liked them. Or like, you know, based on the kind of asymmetrical cube. He never liked those things. He liked them when he made them, but he never liked them during the time I was friends with him, for the last, you know…

CUNO: Did he destroy work, though? Did he constantly edit his oeuvre?

BOIS: He destroyed work but far less than one would think. In fact, he had a very hard time destroying paintings. He didn’t like to a destroy thing, even if he didn’t like the work. He destroyed some drawings, yes. But far less than what one would think. Like, when I did a show I did at the Drawing Center, you know, of the Tablet. So, one day, I was at Ellsworth’s studio, and he said, “Oh.” He opened a big drawer and said, “Yve-Alain, did I show you those?” And of course, he knew very well he never showed me those. Those were about 200 boards on cardboard with all kinds of little drawings, but also clips of images cut out from magazines and all that. They were glued on these 200 cardboards.

And, you know, they were basically things the had to—they were in a big box, when he was moving from New York to Spencertown and he decided, well, they were not good enough to be in the sketchbooks, but they are not bad enough to be thrown away, so I have to find something. So, he just made this presentation for him to keep them. And he had never shown it to anyone and he had never looked at them in all that time. And I said, “Well, we have to show them.” And he was very ambivalent about the idea of showing them because they were rough ideas, they were some doodles that he made without paying any attention to it. It took him a while before we showed it, and until the end, he had a very ambivalent relationship to the show. You know, “Oh, it shows my weakness,” and all this.

You know, he has this idea—“Well, Ellsworth, I’m sure we have the Zervos here. I’ll show you quite a few better ones, if you want to.” But he could not bring himself to throw away all these things in his box of little clippings…

CUNO: …from almost from the very beginning. I mean, the words you use— I think the phrase that you use, which is so clear in this, you say, “…the habit of harnessing his own past, without succumbing to the habit of editing it.”

BOIS: I came to understand that Ellsworth is not an abstract artist, at least to the way we understand abstraction, which has often to do with universals. Speak about Mondrian. You know, like against the particular. Go behind the appearances to the core or whatever. He was always about the particular—the completely particular. This particular shape, this particular form, this particular color… Everything is completely unique and particular. Which is why he can’t edit. Editing would mean that there is a kind of core behind the particularity, that there is some kind of central image that is behind the material, rendering of… No, for him, it’s that square, and not that one. At the end of the catalogue raisonné, I allude to that thing which I think absolutely wonderful, which is one of the two last works he made in Paris, where the pair of a white square bordered by a black frame, and a black square bordered by a white frame. Now, those works have been often compared to Malevich. But, in fact, in the reverse. Malevich, there was a little black square, but the black square could come in any way—he had several versions of the same painting; some done by a student, the other, a plate that was on his tomb. I mean, the black square was a kind of universal thing for Malevich, like zero degree of shape. It was like the beginning of everything and the end of everything.

But for Ellsworth the square was not this kind of universal shape at all. In fact, those paintings were linked to a screen, a frosted glass screen of a café, with a metal frame, of a café terrace in Paris that you would put in the fall. And he went back to measure the square. And he says something in one of the texts that he wrote or interview with someone, he said, “I had to measure the proportion of the square.” “But it’s not the proportion,” I told Ellsworth. The square has a very clear proportion; it’s one to one.” It’s the size. This particular size is what he liked. This particular measurement of this particular square. It’s not just a square. It’s that square. And that, I think, is typical of the way he thought.

CUNO: You also say at one point, in his working pattern, you describe it as a system. Then almost immediately, you backtrack and say, the idea of a system is inadequate when talking about his work. That it doesn’t admit to Ellsworth’s habit of working intuitively. Well, what do you mean by that? And how do you rethink the word system?

BOIS: He had no, let’s say, theoretical foundation, really. He had a practical, you know, tools of being taught, the simple manipulation of color and paint at the school. But he had no—today’s young kids who go to art school, they are spoon-fed a lot of theoretical discourse. Not at all with Ellsworth. It’s completely intuitive. And sometimes, he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing until much later, the way he reflects upon it. But it’s kind of after. So—I think it’s all—what I call his non-compositional strategies, they just came kind of naturally, organically, without him really thinking too much about it. And with regard to color, often he’s asked, “How do you explain why you used this color?” He often said, “I don’t know.” And he had this wonderful image of, you know, what’s the word in English, the people who look for springs or water, you know. And in the South of France, they have these little rods. You know, they hold it, and when the rod starts trembling, they say, “Ah, there must be water underneath there.”

He made often this gesture. I don’t know; it’s like that. And he would do the same gesture with his hands, you know. I do that. My brain does that, so my eyes do that. He always said, “Yeah, my eyes. My eyes tell me, yeah, yeah, that’s it. That’s it. But I don’t know why exactly.” And he would agonize about a particular shade of one color for months.

In the last show, there was one painting, a three-panel painting with red, black, and white. And for more than a year, that painting was unfinished, and, you know, it looked finished to me, but it was actually declared unfinished in the studio. Every time I would come, let’s say every month or month and a half, he was dissatisfied with the red and he would change the red.

And of course, since I would go only, you know, every month and half or something, I frankly could not see much difference. But for him, it was absolutely, you know… And one day he said, “Okay, I found the red. That’s it. I’ve got it.” But he had no particular idea of why exactly. And he really disliked any kind of color theory. And I had a hard time explaining to him that Albers didn’t have a theory. [chuckles] He didn’t dislike Albers’ theory of color. I said, “But Albers is not a—you know it’s practical recipes; there is no real theory.” But he was like… that was it.

CUNO: Now, you cite some factors to be taken into consideration when considering his non-compositional strategy, as you call it. And some of these factors, you say, are his early interest in medieval and particularly Romanesque sculpture—or architecture—the impact of Hiroshima, the atom bomb, and the artist’s sense of self and humanity. Big questions. The overwhelming presence and example, of course, of Picasso as a young artist for Ellsworth, working in Paris after the war. What about these factors? And tell us more about them.

BOIS: Around his first statements, the famous letter to Cage, where he spoke about the anonymity of the medieval period and all that—that was kind of romantic view of the Middle Ages and the pre-modern concept, pre-Renaissance, you know, concept of the artist that he had. So, he was interested in that. But I would say as a kind of dream. You know, a kind of dreamland.

CUNO: You raise the question or the name of John Cage. And you do talk about the role of chance in his non-compositional strategy. And some of that comes from or is introduced to him by Ralph Coburn, as I recall. Could you tell us more about the role of chance in his work?

BOIS: I’ll try to correct a mistake that is often done, that Cage was very important for Kelly with regard to this issue of chance. They met for one afternoon in June 1949, and another afternoon, I think, two weeks later and that was it. And then they corresponded one—Kelly wrote to him a year and a half later. So at that time, Cage was not interested in chance—not yet. So, Cage was very, very important for Kelly, in the sense that you know, Kelly was very young, very shy, and Cage told him, “Oh, what you do is very good,” because he brought him to his hotel room. They met because they were in the same hotel. And Coburn was Kelly’s friend, just said, “Oh, is Cage here?”—and introductions were made and whatever. But so chance—Coburn, and also Newman a bit later, introduced Kelly to the game of cadavre exquis, which Kelly found interesting, but was not sure it would yield too much and didn’t actually continue in that. The person that was important for him with regard to his interest in chance was actually Jean Arp, who he visited three times—in 1950 and 1951.

And Arp showed them—he went with Coburn and one visit with Youngerman—and Arp showed them a little, you know, collage he had made of things cut out or torn out. That’s what Arp said—I never believed completely that, but you know, arranged according to chance, by throwing the pieces of paper on the ground and then gluing them on a piece of paper as they had fallen. So, that had been important for Kelly as a kind of—and also the fact that what Arp had been doing is cutting up his own work, you know, as a kind of almost iconoclastic relationship to his previous work, in order to make those collages according to chance. And that was important for Kelly. It was a big, oh, that’s one way to use it. And he began to be more interested in…

CUNO: And we see Ellsworth use that in 1951, in Cité, for example, right?

BOIS: Yeah, exactly.

CUNO: So we mentioned Coburn, and you mentioned Jack Youngerman. Those are pretty much Ellsworth’s friends at the time. He’s pretty much otherwise alone, wasn’t he? And then…

BOIS: Jack Youngerman and his wife Delphine Seyrig, the actress. And, you know, Ellsworth was lonely. I mean, even though he had a show in Paris, in a gallery that he and Jack Youngerman and a third friend, [Georges] Koskas, persuaded this bookseller Arnaud to open a kind of gallery in the basement. And so they spent like two, two and a half or three months busy painting, cleaning the basement. And then they each of them had a show there. And Ellsworth had his first one-man show, which is quite amazing, including major works and, you know, he didn’t sell anything. The only work that he sold in Paris was actually before that show, and was through the friendship. It was to Henri Seyrig, the father of Delphine Seyrig. And Henri Seyrig was the head of oriental antiquity in the Louvre at the time. He was a major scholar, and he was also the head of the French Institute of Archeology in Lebanon. And so that’s the only work that Ellsworth sold in five years and half of living in Paris. Just extraordinary.

CUNO: But the advantage to him—and we talked about this a bit earlier—the advantage of him being away from New York and away from the pressure of New York, the towering figures of New York, the emergence of a Picasso-like figure, Pollock, in New York, what ultimately was to his advantage.

BOIS: Yea, but he didn’t know it at the time. When he came back to New York, he felt that he had missed the boat a bit and people thought he was too European, in a way. And it was a very strange situation, because in Paris he was always thought as too American. Possibly because he didn’t speak French very well, or almost not. When he returned to America, he was felt his work was understood as too European. So, he was a little off. He was a loner, it’s true. And never felt that he belonged to any group or anything. Even late in life, I mean, the artists with whom he associated were and you would not imagine being part of the same group, let’s say. He was always very, very fond of Roy Lichtenstein. They even showed together. But you know, you would not necessarily put them in the same branch of the tree, let’s say.

CUNO: So, in those last months, let’s say, in Paris, he was in the hospital for some number of weeks, wasn’t feeling well, he was in the American Hospital in Neuilly. And he came across, you say in the catalog, you say he comes across this article on the work of Ad Reinhardt. And that was important to him.

BOIS: Yeah, well, he saw the cover of ARTNews. I think it was a review of the show of Reinhardt, a long review, and he said, “Oh my God,” you know, remember, he was very poor, he had not sold anything. He was very depressed at the time because he had been kicked out of his studio by the owner who could rent it to an artist who was more fortunate. So, he was very depressed and was beginning to write to friends, “That’s it. I have to go back and I can’t continue anymore.” And he felt that, you know, if those works by Reinhardt, they were probably—I don’t remember the color, but I think it was a blue—no, it was not a black work, it was one of those blue, you know, monochrome. But not monochrome, because there is no monochrome in Reinhardt, but blue on blue. And he felt, you know, well, if there is like a color in front in the cover of a journal and an article, then maybe I can survive in America. Maybe, you know, my kind of work can sell. So that he came back.

CUNO: So, Yve-Alain, we talked earlier about how long you’ve been thinking about and looking at and writing about Ellsworth’s work, over the course your academic career, scholarly career. And then in the intensity of this project, with the years, a decade or so on this first volume of the catalogue raisonné. How much did you learn in the process? I mean, is it—you mentioned earlier about something about how you learned about his working process at the beginning. But is there a fundamental change in your thinking about him, as a result of this long-term commitment to the project?

BOIS: It’s hard to say. For the most part, my interpretation or my vision of things didn’t change, but it got deeper. I was a bit afraid, to tell you the truth, about this first volume. Well, for one reason, it’s always a difficult volume because it’s the volume where you establish the grid, basically, the parameter, how to work, how to do. You have to put the structure in place, so it’s a bit scary for that. But that was not the main problem for me. I was afraid of getting bored, because I thought I knew those works very well. I’d written about almost all of them before, you know. And on the contrary, what happened is that I would get more and more impressed by the process and all the visual thinking that was behind every one of them, much more than I’d previously thought. Because you know, you spend more time with all of them and discovered things that I didn’t know before or a lot of things that I didn’t know before. So, my interpretation or my view of Ellsworth has not changed, except that I think that I would not have said before—it would not be in my DNA to say that I didn’t think that Ellsworth is an abstract artist, at least on the way—I mean, he’s an abstract artist, of course, but he doesn’t have any concept of the universal, and which is the way we think about abstraction, which is like, you know, you have all the concrete parts, and then you have the abstract concept that…
I don’t think I would have been able to formulate it that way. I think that this notion that everything is utterly particular and can’t be reproduced any other way is something that I understood intuitively, but could not have formulated that way.

CUNO: Yve-Alain, thank you so much for all the time that you’ve given us. I’ve got one last question. It was something that we sort of—I teased you with—before we got on the air. But one of the fundamental and profound contributions that the catalogue raisonné makes is to the authority that it has. And that authority is usually referred to in shorthand by the name of the author and the number given with the work of art thereafter. So, for hereon out, Ellsworth forever is going to be—his pictures will be referred by Bois numbers. How do you live with that?

BOIS: [laughs] I don’t know, until a friend of mine mentioned that to me yesterday, I had never thought about it. It’s a bit, I don’t know what to think about it. I really don’t.

CUNO: Okay. Well, thanks a lot. It’s been great talking with you.

BOIS: Alright.

CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

YVE-ALAIN BOIS: In Paris, he was always thought as too American, possibly because he didn’t speak ...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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