Getting ahead by doing the same thing


We are a society obsessed with innovation, makeovers, and constant change. We believe that the best art is the art that is the most radical, the most outrageous and a game-changer. Yet the strongest work comes from a dedicated focus to one idea. American artist, Ellsworth Kelly, who died last week at the age of 92, was a master of the simple idea. As a young person in my 20s, I looked at Kelly’s work and wondered how he could do the same thing year after year. Doesn’t he get bored? Is he short on ideas? I had a naive understanding of art; I thought an artist had to be constantly thinking of inventive, breakthrough dramatic ideas. I presumed that the artist must always be looking for the new and for the different and that these ideas came from a galaxy far away. It is only over the last few decades that I have come to understand that innovations can come in small increments. I have learned that good work comes from authenticity, not forced drama.

Originality is not something you can strive for; it comes out of a commitment to a singular idea. If you flit from idea to idea, chances are your work will be derivative because you haven’t given yourself enough time to understand “your” part in the idea. Want to come up with something original? Try doing the same thing over and over again. Eventually it will become yours and unlike anything else anyone has done before. Kelly’s commitment to working with colour and shape, allowed him to create work that was truly original and groundbreaking. He changed colour and shape from a means to an end, to being a solid idea in itself.

Kelly made work about the shapes that caught his attention in his peripheral vision. He described an experience he had as a teenager, in which he was playing around with a few friends on Halloween night. As they were running down the street, some blue and yellow abstract shapes in a window caught his attention and stopped him in his tracks. The shapes weren’t anything in particular –perhaps part curtain, part wall. Whatever they were, his recognition of them changed his life forever. To quote my seven-year-old nephew, the shapes Kelly saw made his “heart start”. From then on, Kelly paid attention to the shapes in the world, both in architecture and nature, that made his heart start. His shaped canvases became innovative by transcending the limitations of the rectangular painting surface. These works have a physical presence that gives the viewer a sensation similar to that of experiencing actual shapes out in the world. The simplicity of this work makes the colour and the shape feel as if they are separate and specific sensations. The colour and form are so strong that they can be experienced together as well as two separate entities (unlike when you look at a colourful form in nature such as a flower or bird, where colour is much more specifically tied to shape). Kelly describes some of his inspirations in an interview with Agnes Gund.

Kelly also spent his entire life doing drawings of plants. He said he did this to keep his hand/eye coordination well-developed, but I think he did these contour drawings as way to keep his connection with the world alive. Again this simple repetition of a singular idea informed his work in a profound way. The confidence and freshness achieved in these line drawings are a direct result of the thousands of hours Kelly devoted to looking at and drawing plants.

There is a great panel discussion on Kelly and his legacy moderated by Robert Storr called American Abstraction Since Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly’s art, like the work many artists, does not hold up that well in reproduction due to the flattening of the images, so if you haven’t had the opportunity to see his work in person, this short video will give you as sense of the sculptural quality of his works: Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks

With the new year upon us, instead of thinking how you can make better and more original work, I suggest you continue making the same work you’ve already started. Make yourself focus on one idea that really interests you, and work with that idea until you can’t bear it any more. And still repeat it one more time. You will notice that changes will occur in the work without you even trying to make them happen. Work on any idea long enough, it will become solid and substantial and it will reveal itself to you in many different forms. As discovered through the work of Ellsworth Kelly, never underestimate the power of a simple, singular idea.


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