This collage by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly shows a section of a nude female torso placed over a tropical-looking landscape. The composition is divided into three horizontal sections of paper: a strip of landscape at the top, a middle section containing the woman’s body and a smaller section of landscape below. Within this arrangement are also several other layered elements: a top section of sky punctuated by silhouetted hills beneath; a breast and naval; and finally, in the lower left portion of the composition, a lake and fields. Despite this fragmentation, the work contains several harmonious elements. Most obviously, the bottom landscape layer is a visual continuation of the top, so that they appear to be two parts of the same image. The shape of the breast to the right is echoed by the circular shape formed by the surface of the lake and the peaks of the hills above. Furthermore, the ripped white edges of the image of the woman echo the jagged shapes formed by the rocks and the mountains.
By the time he made this work in 1979, Kelly had been living and working in Spencertown, New York, for nine years. That same year he built a studio adjacent to his house, in which Saint Martin Landscape may have been created (see Waldman 1996, p.37). The art historian Diane Waldman notes that Kelly sometimes used magazine pages to form his collages, which he cut up and rearranged (see Waldman 1996, p.18). In this collage, the two visible tear lines at the upper and lower edges of the image of the woman suggest that the artist tore out and then affixed this section of paper onto the landscape scene behind. The collage’s title refers to the location shown in the image, which is the island of Saint Martin in the north-east Caribbean, and the tree-covered hills that can be seen are typical of the island’s foliage.
While Kelly is best known as an abstract artist, several historians and critics have identified references to landscapes in the curved forms of his paintings and sculptures. The critic Carter Ratcliff has noted that curves appeared in Kelly’s art early in his career, from the 1940s onwards, as in the arched form in Kilometer Marker 1949 (private collection) (see Waldman 1996, p.57). Another early inspiration for Kelly was that of surrealism, one that can be traced back to his residency in Paris in 1948 and in particular Kelly’s interest in drawings by the French writer Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) (see Waldman 1996, p.10). This influence is particularly evident in the unlikely juxtaposition of the female form and the land in Saint Martin Landscape.
This work could be seen to utilise chance practices and seemingly random combinations. Kelly may have controlled the appearance of the torn white lines at the edges of the woman’s torso, but this would only have been possible to a certain extent; beyond this, the process of tearing it has contributed a chance element to its appearance. Similarly, it is likely that the image of the island of Saint Martin was simply at hand when Kelly was working on this collage, along with that of the woman’s body. The introduction of chance into this work is significant within Kelly’s collage work more generally. Writers on his collages draw attention to a series of eight coloured grids he created in the early 1950s, all of which are made up of a set of small coloured paper squares cut up by the artist and positioned in random compositions. Kelly said of these in 2009: ‘the collages employed different systems and arrangements, using chance to organise where a spectrum of eighteen colours would be placed’ (Kelly in Grunenberg 2009, p.64, accessed 11 May 2015).
Kelly is known for the large abstract paintings that he has produced since the 1940s, and his work was being exhibited widely in America at the time that Saint Martin Landscape was created, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Collage is viewed as an important medium within Kelly’s work more generally, and while this example can be viewed as sitting at odds with his other collages – for instance, it is much smaller in size and does not utilise a grid – it reflects Kelly’s broader approach to his creative practice, which Ratcliff has described as ‘playing the abstract off the figurative, mediating between literal flatness and illusions of depth, object and image, real space and pictorial space’ (Ratcliff in Waldman 1996, p.61).
John Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York 1972.
Diane Waldman, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1996.
Christoph Grunenberg, ‘Sixty Years at Full Intensity’, Tate Etc., no.16, Summer 2009, pp.64–7, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/sixty-years-full-intensity, accessed 11 May 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.