The book was first published in its present form in 1999. Even though it was not conceived as a book for children, it still incorporates Kelly's experiences working with children and certainly influenced him in planning this visual primer of lines, shapes, and colors. The young artist submitted it in 1951 to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation as a project proposal for a grant at the time when he was teaching at the American School in Paris. Since nothing came of it at the time, Kelly first exhibited his studies for this book in a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1996. The present publication was produced to accompany the exhibition of his early graphic work in Harvard, Mass., USA, and Winterthur, Switzerland, 1999/2000.
It is a small-format, almost square textless book. At first, the viewers are intrigued by the long sequence of pages with lines, areas, and colors. Turning the pages back and forth reveals the quality and effect of black lines on a white background and of black and white geometric figures on the respective contrasting background color. These black-and-white pages alternate with full-color pages, with pages in block stripes, and finally with narrower stripes that appear irregularly staggered. It is a kind of "school of vision" for viewers of all ages and is connected to many of Kelly's later minimalist paintings and objects.
Harry Cooper, in his accompanying text, highlights the book's connection to Kelly's artistic oeuvre as well as to the children's book tradition. In his project proposal, Kelly explains that he wants to make a book "which will be an alphabet of plastic pictorial elements." At the time, he was already looking for a way to combine his painting style with architectural forms. As a children's book, it seems to be dedicated to the students of the American School in Paris, with whom he created collages and other experimental works. Despite its non-representational form, the book also has a narrative element: some 20 folios in black and white are followed by as many in color, and at the end the form - two segments of circles - moves from green to an analogous, only faintly perceptible, indented lineament on white and on black. In this way, the ending leads back to the beginning, to start all over again.
Ellsworth Kelly, born 1923 in Newburgh, New York, died 2015 in Spencertown, New York, is a well-known US-American painter, sculptor, and graphic artist and is considered one of the most important representatives of American art after 1945.
Kelly studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and later in Boston. After war service and further years of study in Boston, he went to Paris in 1948, where he met the Surrealists and other avant-garde artists. He was particularly influenced by Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, and Hans Arp. In 1950/51 he taught at the American School in Paris. He had to give up this teaching position after his monochrome, non-representational works were shown in a gallery exhibition and provoked protests.
In 1954, Kelly moved to New York City, in 1970 to Spencertown, New York. He participated in many international exhibitions, including several times at the Documenta in Kassel or the Venice Biennale. His works, which are attributed to hard-edge and Minimal Art, can be found in many major museums.
Yve-Alain Bois / Harvard University Art Museums: Ellsworth Kelly. The Early Drawings 1948 -1955, University of Chicago Press, 1999
Diane Waldman et al.: Ellsworth Kelly. A Retrospective. Exhibition catalogue, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996