Looking at his paintings, Ellsworth Kelly suggests, is “on the same level as looking at your shirt.” He taps my arm. “I’m not interested in depiction–I’m interested in literal space. Our eyes are open all the time, we use our eyes to live, but we don’t play, we don’t investigate. I’ve always been investigating perception, since I was a kid.” A leading exponent of hard-edge abstraction, Kelly says, “I feel my thrust all along was trying to do one color, one shape. It took me 40 years to really do that well.”

Kelly traces the six new monochrome paintings recently installed in the indoor courtyard of the Rice Building at the Art Institute back to 1949–the second year of six he spent in Paris, when he first began to extract pure shapes from such ordinary things as windows. Those roots can be seen in “Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings, 1948-1955,” also in the Rice Building (both exhibitions open Saturday).

Studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston just before he went to Paris, Kelly was unaware of the young abstract expressionist painters working in New York–back then the American models for most art students were such painters as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. When he went to Paris, he realized that he didn’t want to make easel paintings anymore. “I didn’t want to do portraits–I didn’t want to be personal.” He stopped painting for a while, not wishing to be “a tenth-rate Picasso.” But he went to museums all the time in those first months in Paris and began drawing “mostly prehistoric stuff. I became interested in pre-Renaissance art, and I said, ‘Ah! Very impersonal.’ Romanesque architecture was very, very influential for me–the structure, the curves, the arches. I’ve always felt like I wanted my work to work with architecture.”

In 1988 or 1989, Kelly toured the Art Institute’s new galleries with his old friend Art Institute director Jim Wood. Looking at the empty walls of the Rice Building’s courtyard, Kelly understood that it wouldn’t be an appropriate place for traditional paintings: “It functions as a corridor, and there are columns. It needed something more architectural. Then I thought this would be a place where I could put in single panels, and Jim said, ‘Design something for it.'” Using paintings on canvas he’d already made, Kelly created an installation that remained in place for ten years. He says that this first version was “very successful,” but he still felt that the canvas panels were not as architectural as metal panels would be. Then the Art Institute commissioned the new works, which Kelly painted on aluminum; he also mounted each three inches from the wall: “I want them to project into our space.”

Kelly compares the rectangular area where each painting is hung, defined by moldings and doorways, to the white ground of a canvas. He carefully planned their shapes and positions on the wall–and feels he got their placement right: “If you move one just a bit counterclockwise, it begins to appear to fall.” Because the shapes are unfamiliar–four have only straight edges, two also have curves, and there are no right angles–they also call attention to themselves and to the space around them. Kelly notes that the columns pass in front of the paintings as you move. “That creates a fragmentation in the panels, which I like very much.”

The paintings’ large scale also ensures they’ll be noticed. “They’re about how people react to them,” Kelly says. And they exist over time, not in an instant. “You have to live with them, I want them to be used. I want them to be mysterious. And I want them to be sexy. In color, shape, and size, I think they’re voluptuous.”

The show of Kelly’s early drawings closes December 5, but his six paintings on aluminum will be up indefinitely. The Art Institute is at Michigan and Adams. Call 312-443-3600 for more information. –Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Fields on a Map” photo courtesy Ellsworth Kelly; “Study for ‘Gaza'” photo by David Matthews–courtesy the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums; Ellsworth Kelly photo by Nathan Mandell.