From the Desk of Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, “Study for Blue and White Sculpture for Les Tuileries,” 1964, postcard collage.

Ellsworth Kelly’s only freestanding building, Austin, is a gleaming jewel in the Blanton Museum of Art’s vast collection. It also serves as a tangible legacy of the artist’s presence in the city whose name he bestowed on his last piece. Kelly’s posthumous gift to the university elevated Austin as an art destination and the premiere locale for enjoying his work.  

Besides the iconic monument, the museum also boasts several of Kelly’s works in its permanent collection, offering a robust study of the artist’s multitudes. But perhaps nowhere can you better experience the fantastical mind and world of Kelly than through the Blanton’s newest exhibit showcasing the artist’s personal postcards. 

Previously only enjoyed by friends of Kelly and in rare public showings, the postcards are now part of “Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards,” a traveling exhibit that arrived at the Blanton on Aug. 27.  

Through Nov. 27, approximately 160 postcards spanning 1949 to 2005 will be on display. The collection first appeared at The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in 2021 before traveling to Austin. Curated by Ian Berry in collaboration with the Ellsworth Kelly Studio, and with Jessica Eisenthal, the collection reveals a formerly unseen side of the iconic American artist.  

The series traces the artist’s many homes and travels, showcasing famous scenes altered through collage. While they served as an effective drafting 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 of artists “publishing” their work through the postal service.  

Ellsworth Kelly, “Statue of Liberty,” 1957, postcard collage.

Carter E. Foster, the Blanton’s deputy director for curatorial affairs and a friend of the late Kelly, was interested in continuing the museum’s dedication to his work but also brought the exhibit to the Blanton in hopes of delighting longtime fans with a new perspective on the famous artist. “[This collection] shows a relatively unknown side to him that will surprise people who feel like they’re familiar with his work,” Foster says.  

Unlike the “monumentality of the building Austin,” there is an intimacy to the postcards, says Foster—both in scale and sentiment. Kelly was famously private, even refraining from signing his art to avoid producing a recognizable style. His discomfort with giving interviews early in his career out of fear of muddling the purpose of his art had the opposite intended effect, lending his work an aura of unknowability.  

But unlike the finely produced works that define his career, Kelly’s postcards reveal an artist’s work in progress. In a lunchtime lecture series on Kelly at the Blanton in 2019, Kelly scholar Tricia Y. Paik described them as a “traveling laboratory for his ideas.”  

His experimentation with scale, distortion, and collage in the miniature can be found in subsequent work throughout his career. In one vertical postcard from 1957, a thick, jagged white stripe juts across 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 rely on this imagery: sharp, geometric shapes and photographs cut from magazines and newspapers juxtaposed with scenes portrayed on existing postcards, distorting what the eye expects to see. A human nose morphs into the bow of a ship, a partially nude female body interrupts a landscape, ripped black and white paper mars a city skyline. They’re whimsical yet jarring, an intriguing look inside 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 art of the book Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards, the eye is drawn to a black scrap of paper overlaid against a bright blue sky and crashing, frothy waves. A white rectangular shape pasted next to the black seems to swing back, as if to invite the viewer closer. In the yawning black space, Foster sees an invitation to walk through the door to explore new dimensions.  

Ellsworth Kelly, “Columbus Circle,” 1957, postcard collage.

It’s the perfect image to represent the whole collection, a portal to the previously mysterious inner world of Kelly. But even more than mining the postcards for glimpses into the career and humanity of the artist who created them, Foster hopes visitors simply enjoy the playfulness of Kelly’s mind. As Paik put it in her lecture, those postcards are a peek into it.  

“These postcard collages in many ways best analogize the way Ellsworth Kelly sees the world,” Paik said. “In some ways, they are the next best thing to seeing the world with his eyes.” 

CREDIT: Collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, Ellsworth Kelly Foundation (3)


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