Ellsworth Kelly. Sketchbook #26, New York City. 1954–56. Page from a spiral-bound sketchbook with pencil, ink, colored ink, and ballpoint pen on paper, 14 1/8 × 10 7/8 × 1/2" (35.9 × 27.6 × 1.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jack Shear. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation

It is easy to forget, when beholding Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, reliefs, or sculptures, that many of these works—large and confident, with purposefully impersonal surfaces—began with the slightest of passing perceptions or the humblest of ideas. That forms which seem ineluctable arose from inklings or observations and were coaxed toward their ultimate ends through careful modification and continual fine-tuning. Kelly’s collages, with their imperfect edges and touches of remnant glue, are one reminder of the origins of much of the artist’s grander output; they evoke that special tenderness that can accompany geometry when it is ever so slightly idiosyncratic. His drawings are another: a stray mark, the quiver in a line, a doubling back or an erasure, all attest to the particular human mind that, through a series of incremental decisions, arrives at a result whose aim is to downplay its own mechanics. In Kelly’s sketchbooks—to which he turned constantly, and kept mostly private, throughout his long career—we see even more evidence of the protracted thought, extended inquiry, and perpetual investigation of which there is little sign in the apparently (but only apparently) preordained presences of his eventual achievements.

Sketchbook #26 is a standard-issue Strathmore Alexis Drawing pad—eleven by fourteen inches, with a coiled wire binding—the first such product that the company introduced, in 1950.1 Kelly filled eighteen of its pages (thirty-six if you count front and back) of white, wove, medium-weight paper, between 1954 and 1956, his first two years in New York, after six spent in France.2 He was living and working in a studio at 109 Broad Street, near the tip of Lower Manhattan, before his 1956 move to the nearby Coenties Slip studio with which he would be more famously associated. He worked nights at a post office to make ends meet and “fill[ed] sketchbooks with ideas of paintings to be realized as soon as his finances [would] allow.”3

Cover of Ellsworth Kelly’s Sketchbook #26, New York City, 1954–56

Cover of Ellsworth Kelly’s Sketchbook #26, New York City, 1954–56

A page from Sketchbook #26

A page from Sketchbook #26

The move to New York from Paris coincided with—or, more accurately, initiated—a transitional period in Kelly’s artistic practice, what Diane Waldman has called “a time of adjustment, assimilation, and advance.”4 In France, Kelly had embraced chance and adopted a “one color, one panel” principle—both strategies in service of “a rigorous adherence to his non-compositional and anti-subjective stance,” according to Yve-Alain Bois.5 In New York the artist allowed himself the new indulgence of the curve: an element that would necessarily introduce the figure-ground relationships he had previously proscribed, and thus require, or invite, a host of subjective choices. Sketchbook #26 offers a front-row seat to the experimentation that accompanied, indeed characterized, this shift.

Its first page of drawings epitomizes the set of decisions that now awaited the artist: What are the various ways in which a pair of curves might inhabit a rectangle? What are the possibilities for their relating to each other, and to the edges of their container, and how might color enhance or amplify the effect? At the upper right corner of the sheet, Kelly has attempted two versions in which the forms he called “heels” appear in black, one stacked vertically above the other.6 Lower on the page, and now in blue, he turns the heels 90 degrees clockwise, so that their straight edges align with the right side of the rectangle they occupy. Next, what if the heels—in this same configuration but a bit rounder—become green and are situated against a blue ground rather than a white one? It is this kind of research that resulted in the series of paintings—Black Curves (1954), Yellow Curves (1954), and Red Curves (1955)—that would feature in Kelly’s first solo exhibition in the United States, at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, in 1956.7

One of the many captivating aspects of Sketchbook #26 is the way in which its pages converse—with each other, with Kelly’s oeuvre—and these conversations are overlapping and multivalent. From this first page we might segue in any number of directions. If we focus on the rhomboid cut that the artist has excised from the page (a cut whose shape itself might be that of a Kelly), we catch a partial glimpse of two forms—black and blue—on the sheet beneath. When we lift the page, they are revealed to be studies in positive and negative forms—a blue orb with a little tail alongside an expression of the form’s absence—but with the overleaf down they appear quite different: a squat black quadrilateral and a slim blue strip. Alternatively, if we turn to the first page’s leftmost red form we might recognize the makings of Barge (1955), a painting in which, as we will see, two shapes merge along a central seam to create one whose curves and corners alternately meet or tease the confines of its rectangular ground.8 The development of Barge unfolds across two other sheets in this sketchbook: page 11, where it shows up in three pencil sketches and is much more attenuated horizontally, and page 13, where Kelly’s assigning of different colors to its two components—green and blue, yellow and red—dramatizes the spectacle of its merger into a single black mass.

Each page of Sketchbook #26 contains the code for many more works of this period.

A page from Sketchbook #26

A page from Sketchbook #26

We might also pivot along the axis of the 1956 Betty Parsons show. An installation shot documents the inaugural exhibition of both Black Curves and the multipanel painting Red Yellow White Black Blue (1955); Sketchbook #26 traces the evolution of both paintings.9 Four of its pages—22, 23, 24, 26—are devoted to variations of this latter work, testing permutations in the order and proportions of the titular colors; in fact, Kelly would continue to change the sequence of the actual painting’s panels even after it was executed and exhibited.10 Although, as Bois surmises, the vertical appearance of what was conceived as a horizontal painting in the Parsons show was likely due to space constraints, this variable orientation is nonetheless prefigured by the composition’s multiple incarnations in this sketchbook, where it appears now parallel, now perpendicular to the binding.11 Subject to rotation at any time, a sketchbook introduces the possibility for artist and viewer alike to experience a shift in viewpoint that might be productive in its estrangement or instructive in its unexpectedness.

This same line of inquiry might be conducted almost indefinitely: each page of Sketchbook #26 contains the code for many more works of this period, from the heterogeneous components of Painting in Three Panels (1956), to the rectangular masses of Black White (1957–58), to the anthropomorphic Xs of South Ferry (1956), Times Square (1956; fig. 6), and Red White (1958), to the spliced halves of Black and White (1955–57) or Pole (1957).12

We might finish by pursuing the path onto which one last set of motifs from the first page opens out. At right, two rough ink drawings—one horizontal, one vertical—feature staffs of parallel lines, upon which Kelly has begun to place a series of marks. These seem to anticipate the variegated screens that he renders in more detail on pages 13, 18, and 19, which themselves anticipate monumental architectural projects like Sculpture for a Large Wall (1956–57) (currently on view in the Marron Atrium).13 The distance from intimate sketchbook to public sculpture may seem great, but the possibility of such a transposition was envisioned by Kelly all along. “My collages are only ideas for things much larger—things to cover walls,” he wrote to John Cage in 1950, and the same is true of his sketchbooks, which hold nearly infinite ideas for things much larger.¹⁴ Some of these ideas were realized, and identifying the sources of Kelly’s iconic forms within these pages produces a uniquely satisfying jolt of recognition. Many others of them weren’t, however, and perhaps that’s the reason such schematic renderings can ultimately be so moving: they point to all the directions left to take.

A page from Sketchbook #26

A page from Sketchbook #26

Continue the celebration of Kelly’s centennial with an exploration of his work currently on view: Ellsworth Kelly: A Centennial Celebration and Gallery 416: Ellsworth Kelly’s Sketchbooks.

  1. strathmoreartist.com/journal-4-alexis.html. The cover of the sketchbook advertises the paper as “multi-purpose,” indicating that its sizing and texture are suitable for both dry and wet media—just as Kelly used it. I am grateful to Laura Neufeld, MoMA’s Associate Paper Conservator, for her thoughts on this.

  2. Inasmuch as the sketchbook’s cover advertises that it contains “24 sheets,” Kelly must have removed six of them—something the coiled binding made easy.

  3. “Chronology,” in Yve-Alain Bois, Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Reliefs, and Sculpture, vol. 2, 1954–1958 (Paris: Éditions Cahiers d’Art, 2021), 378. All works cited hereinafter are identified by the catalogue raisonné (CR) number assigned by Bois in this volume.

  4. Diane Waldman, “Ellsworth Kelly,” in Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1996), 30.

  5. Bois, introduction to Cat. Rais., 2:8–9. This volume has provided indispensable context, both in its discussion of this period in Kelly’s practice and its inclusion and identification of multiple pages from this and related sketchbooks.

  6. Bois, introduction, 7. For the purposes of this essay, a page’s directionality is determined by the orientation of the artist’s handwriting on that sheet, often reinforced by an arrow indicating which way is “up.”

  7. These are, respectively, CR 142, 143, and 144.

  8. Barge is CR 155.

  9. Red Yellow White Black Blue is CR 151.

  10. Bois, Cat. Rais., 2:59. The 1956 Betty Parsons exhibition installation view shows that, in addition to this work being presented in a vertical orientation, its color order—red/white/black/blue/yellow— differed from its ultimate sequence as reflected in its final title.

  11. Bois, Cat. Rais., 2:59.

  12. These are, respectively, CR 169, 198, 163, 164, 236, 177, 195.

  13. CR 181.