Three Abstract Artists: Ellsworth Kelly, Jenny Nelson and Melinda Stickney-Gibson
“I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract.” –Ellsworth Kelly
“I must have an accident, or I’m not happy.”–Melinda Stickney-Gibson
“I was drawn more to things that were happening between the objects than the objects themselves.” –Jenny Nelson
Having recently seen shows of these three artists, (Ellsworth at Thompson Giroux Gallery in Chatham, NY; Jenny at Tria Gallery in Chelsea, and Melinda at Elena Zang in Shady, NY,) the topic of how abstract artists develop their vocabulary of shapes and the process they follow to create a painting has been on my mind. This is something that pops up frequently in my teaching and mentoring, and I find it fascinating. While I fully realize that I am comparing some apples and oranges with these artists, the basic conversation is relevant to all three.
Ellsworth Kelly derived the imagery for his early abstractions from the street and building where he lived in Paris from 1948-to 1954, and later paintings from manmade forms and those observed in nature. One can assume, then, that he approached each canvas with a plan.
Both Jenny and Melinda, in contrast, work from within each canvas, evolving marks, shapes, texture and color—all of the formal qualities that are critical in all painting but in abstract work ARE the painting—as they work. Many interests remain constant over the years, but shifts in vocabulary happen organically from series to series, usually over the course of a year or two (often punctuated by solo shows).
Where the emphasis lies is highly personal. Melinda describes a series where she felt that painterliness became too dominant, so she eased back to working with “reduced activity, where the shapes become more the point than the paint”. This meshes with her lifelong interest in positive and negative forms, explorations in light and dark values, clearly seen in her high-contrast, bold and muscular current work.
She begins her pieces by lining several up next to each other in her large studio and scribbling a diary of thoughts in pencil. The written narrative gets covered over as she paints, but leaves a kind of charge. (Everything in the under layers of a painting works to create a kind of history of that piece that gives it energy—and so I am always encouraging my students to understand that having to repaint areas that aren’t quite right is an intrinsic part of the process and will add depth in the end).
All three artists have had a solid grounding in observational drawing. Figure drawing teaches an artist not only how to see, but the hand-eye coordination necessary for any intentional mark-making. (If the hand will not do what the brain wants it to, there is struggle.) So even though the process that Jenny and Melinda are involved in is exploratory and many areas in each canvas have been painted and re-painted, drawing ability is crucial.
Jenny’s abstraction evolved from an early interest in still life. Space (famously discussed mid-cenrtury by Clement Greenberg, as I will get into below ) within the canvas is a big consideration. She found that limitless space–such as in a landscape painting—left her feeling unmoored. The shallow space of a still-life gave just enough opportunity to get beyond the picture plane, something still visible in her current work. The shapes and marks blend and separate on the front of the picture plane, but there is also the illusion of depth, some areas coming forward and others receeding .
There is also a great deal of push/pull, or lost and found edges in both Melinda and Jenny’s work, a painter’s technique wherein a given edge or shape looks on top of its adjoining shape (so that it comes forward toward the viewer) in one spot, but appears beneath it in another. This creates subtle vibration and movement.
Clement Greenberg’s famous essay on Modernism from 1960, “Modernist Painting”, discusses flatness as the goal of modern painting.
“It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art. The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture. Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.
All recognizable entities (including pictures themselves) exist in three-dimensional space, and the barest suggestion of a recognizable entity sufffices to call up associations of that kind of space. The fragmentary silhouette of a human figure, or of a teacup, will do so, and by doing so alienate pictorial space from the literal two-dimensionality which is the guarantee of painting’s independence as an art. For, as has already been said, three-dimensionality is the province of sculpture. To achieve autonomy, painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture, and it is in its effort to do this, and not so much — I repeat — to exclude the representational or literary, that painting has made itself abstract.”
Greenberg was discussing Ellsworth Kelly and others of his generation. In prizing flatness, EK’s work would be the definition of modernist painting—absolutely flat, right up on the picture plane (not even able to fly a little airplane in there, to borrow a comment from Tom Wolfe ‘s The Painted Word). This leads, me, however, to another thought about pictoral flatness and depth. Instead of seeing depth or volume going into the picture plane, how about rising from it, coming toward the viewer?
This is why I selected the above piece of Ellsworth’s. It is a little softer than the hard-edge paintings (as seen in “High Yellow”, below), with an uneven surface casting subtle shadows and crooked lines connecting the rectangles. These elements create a vibration that brings the surface toward the viewer–a different kind of depth. This runs to my taste—I find absolute flatness to be harsh and off-putting, with nothing to invite the viewer in.
Jenny mentions an occasional longing for that teacup or, more likely, line of tabletop that surfaces every now and then and makes it’s way into a piece. These references are so abstract that the viewer can see them or not—they are just small glimpses, not essential to the piece, but there to be enjoyed by those who are inclined to do so.
In Melinda’s piece “NOW”, the paint sits firmly on the surface of the picture plane, keeping all attention on the painterly surface. In “, Map of Thinking” below, there are hints of shallow space behind some of the detail in the white area on the left, as there are in Jenny’s “Traveling Light”. (Don’t know if you could fly a little airplane in there, though! To me, it feels more like a back-layer of shallow space behind the surface. )
Jenny begins her canvases with unintentional painted marks—scribbling with left-over paint and using color–often a little brighter—that is not planned. This gives her something to bounce off of as she begins a piece, and these splashes of color often appear in the final piece as nearly covered-over glimpses, such as the orange below in “Now here, Now there”.
Color preference is highly personal and as innate as the types of marks that an artist’s hand tends to make. Jenny has always leaned toward mid-value blues and turquoises—increasingly grayed down over the years— balanced with off-white neutrals, grounded with some earth tones. Melinda uses both nearly- saturated color, often blues and reds, in some work, and earth hues in other pieces, also using off-white or white to create open space. Jenny uses Paine’s Gray as her black, and Melinda deep, deep blacks.
Ellsworth tweaks and adjusts his color endlessly to arrive at the exact hue that he wants. My comment about minimalism to my students is that what is there has to be exactly just so, and as you want it, because there is very little to distract the eye in a reductive painting. With EK, you generally have a only a few colors, so his final choice might look like just another primary, but actually has been mixed very carefully.
All of these issues are pertinent for every painter. Our color should always be as we want it; if we love an accident, only kick-ass accidents should remain; we all have types of shapes and marks that our eye loves to see and our hand do; choices involving detail or its reduction are made with every canvas or series; flatness and depth are explored in varying degrees in each and every painting; how much or how little planning we prefer before we begin a piece is a personal but important choice; and the processes that we follow while working not only lead to the finished piece emerging as recognizably ours, but is also what makes us happy—engrossed, focused, intent–and what brings us back to our studio again and again.