Ellsworth Kelly & Jack Youngerman: Surrounding Shapes

Jun 27, 2023 — Sep 16, 2023

In 1946 – 7, two young, fledgling artists – yet unknown to each other – traveled from small-town United States to postwar Paris to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts. Artists Ellsworth Kelly (American; 1923 – 2015) and Jack Youngerman (American; 1926 – 2020) would become fast friends, skipping classes together to visit the studios of artists like Constantin Brâncuși and Jean Arp, the gallery exhibitions of Henri Matisse, the grave of Vincent van Gogh, and the masterpieces of Medieval and Renaissance art found around the city in museums and cathedrals. After their return to New York in the mid – 1950s, Kelly moved into an illegal artist’s loft on Coenties Slip, a now-famous street in the Financial District in lower Manhattan where other artists like Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, and Robert Indiana lived and worked in their studios. Kelly convinced Youngerman to move in next door. 

The fervor of Abstract Expressionism in New York paved the way for Kelly and Youngerman to explore other modes of non-objective painting in comparatively even keeled, considered, cool terms. Both artists worked with large fields of monochromatic tones. Kelly became known for his paintings that are utterly devoid of the artist’s hand; they are unreservedly smooth, flat panels of color, allowing the optical experience to radiate past the canvas or print. Youngerman’s painterly hand, alternatively, is left visible to the viewer. His expressionistic compositions, created after numerous ink-on-paper studies, are abstract in form yet are not derived from anything found in life: shapes – Youngerman’s primary concern – are inventions of the artist’s imagination. 

In an interview with Youngerman and art historian Barbara Rose from 1966, Rose asked the artist about the public perception of his and Kelly’s art being linked. Youngerman responded, I don’t think our paths are converging but separating. We shared an insistence on economy of means.” When Rose pushed Youngerman to interrogate the artists’ formal congruences and their mutual interest in figure-ground relationships, Youngerman replied: 

If you make a shape on a flat plane, it creates another shape around it.… I may allow the passive surrounding shape to seep into the active shape and then in turn to become the active element itself. … The tension caused by reversing the relationship, and making it possible to see it either way, charges it with life. 

Youngerman’s answer creates, in hindsight, a metaphor for all relationships, artistic and otherwise: an active force pushes, the passive force responds, trading places with the active force until both entities are in a dynamic exchange. Though their lives and practices diverged, the formal echoes of the formative friendship forged in Paris and on Coenties Slip can be seen in this comparative viewing of the artists’ works. The two anchors of this presentation are Youngerman’s May (1963) and Kelly’s Blue White (2006), the enormous painting commissioned for GRAM and permanently installed in the museum’s lobby. The accompanying prints consider the ways in which each artist molded their own artistic vision while reflecting their deeply rooted formal similarities.