I peevishly plodded into the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a brisk Saturday afternoon, hung-over, not necessarily in the mood to be analyzing artwork. I had not been to a museum in ages, so I was not exactly sure what to expect. As I dragged my disheveled and tentative self throughout the building, it became apparent that I was going to have a difficult time finding a work of art that struck me enough to be able to write a three to four page paper on it. Many paintings and sculptures, while expertly crafted to the utmost detail, simply bored me (sorry Manet and Monet). Even the Picasso’s which I found to be pure eye candy, did not stir up enough emotion for me to be able to discuss them in depth.
Feeling nearly defeated and heading towards the exit, I lost my way into a room containing nothing but two solid colors (if they are even considered that); black and white. This hit me, as no other room in the entire museum was like this. After being exposed to a wide range of tones and tints for the previous hour or more, it felt like I had just stepped into a Twilight Zone of some sorts, depraved of all color. The extreme contrast of the room had truly taken me back. Unsurprisingly, these paintings were all constructed by the same artist, Ellsworth Kelly. As I examined each piece, they all seemed to exhume this sense of unity, form, and excessive calculation. Each work appeared to be precisely concocted in order to stretch the colors of black and white to the apex of their potential. Each piece showed this perfectionist character, save one.
“Tennis Court” in my opinion stood out in a room that stood out from the rest of the museum. Though it appears to be something a caveman may have doodled millions of years ago, it evoked a certain je ne sais pas within me. In passing, it looks like the most primitive piece of art in the building, something that I am sure in many minds should not even be construed as artwork. I however felt that “Tennis Court” evolves to become a surprisingly complex painting when you sit down and absorb it for an hour within its surroundings. (Fair warning: you may receive some odd glances from passers-by and museum attendants for being locked on such a “simple” painting for such a long time.)
Kelly is obviously an incredibly deliberate artist. Every other one of his works, though not detailed per say, is formulated very carefully. I can imagine him painstakingly deliberating on where to place each line and how to orient every angle on the canvas in order to get the most out of his two color palette, like some kind of mad scientist mixing chemicals to create a powerful potion. “Tennis Court” appears to be painted at a time when he may have been delusional, drunk, or on drugs; a moment when he lost his sense of extreme order.
The painting is about two feet high by one foot wide, give or take a handful of inches either way. His other paintings in the room are all bigger than this one by a relatively noticeable margin; they are all around at least two to three feet wide and high. This may suggest that “Tennis Court” was not a work Kelly necessarily wanted to be shown off, that it was more of a painting he did to experiment against his natural inclinations and was not sure how it would turn out.
To further accentuate the postulate that “Tennis Court” may not be his favorite creation, it is actually somewhat dirty and uncared for; the edges of this oil on canvas work are soiled and unfinished. It appears that Kelly probably carried this painting around town after eating lunch and his dirty fingertips tarnished the pure white color he used as the background. The texture around the edges also makes it apparent that it was not handled with the greatest of care. There appears to be some chipped paint, possibly from Kelly dropping or scraping the painting, and the grime from his unwashed hands creates somewhat of a sheen or gloss in areas, which is not visible on the meat of the painting. It’s actually a little gross thinking back on it.
Kelly could have simply put a frame around the piece to hide these blemishes, but he chose not to. He left the piece in its most bare form, which I suppose is fitting as the way the subject matter is presented is as innate as it gets. Appropriately, a pieced called “Tennis Court” portrays just that; a tennis court. However, it is not drawn the right way. I am a huge tennis aficionado, so I know exactly what a tennis court looks like, and Kelly did not paint one. I am not exactly sure what he was looking at. It appears that he drew a bird’s eye view of the court, but the way he orients the lines bothers me. I can’t tell if the middle box he drew is supposed to be the two service courts, or if it is supposed to be representative of one service court and the net. The reason that I am not able to tell is because the boxes are not the same size. One is more appropriately sized to be a service box, but the other is more rectangular, which makes me question what is supposed to be. Kelly does not give any hints by employing only two flat colors.
I am also annoyed that the shapes are placed off center. The box creating the border of the court is shifted to the right, which the service box within that box is shifted to the left. This does create a sense of balance as a whole, but the individual parts are not aligned correctly. However, when I squinted my eyes and looked at the painting from a distance, I saw nearly perfect symmetry; everything looks perfectly placed. I was surprised that it comes off as being so uniform when viewing it in this manner. The painting actually exudes the calculated characteristics of Kelly’s other works. Whether or not this is intended be would make an interesting question for debate.
Viewing “Tennis Court” in this fashion also eliminates the shoddy brushwork he employed in the painting. Squinting your eyes makes the white and black paint seem as solid and piercing as they are in his other works. When looking at the piece without a funny face, it is a totally different story. Kelly appears to use one thick brush for the entire work. He paints in what appears to be an uninterested and uncaring manner, using paint squeezed straight from the tube onto his brush. You can visibly see that he starts by drawing the outline of the court in black paint, then paints over it with white deciding that he doesn’t like how it looks, but does not even put enough effort to completely hide this “mistake” as he only uses enough white to mask the black a small degree. It looks like he then paints with wide but loose horizontal strokes of white paint to fill in the blank canvas, but does not seem to mind if the paint is of a uniform thickness throughout. He then paints the remaining outline of the tennis court in black with the same distracted brushstrokes. For whatever reason, possibly inebriation, he is not able to connect all the lines properly and leaves stay marks. Kelly again somewhat conceals these blunders with scant amounts of white paint.
If this piece was not entitled “Tennis Court,” I am not entirely certain that I would have recognized that as the subject matter. Kelly could have easily named it “Box Enclosed in Another Box” and I would have totally bought that. The painting uses only two colors and a total of eleven lines, but is able to evoke a myriad of questions and interpretations. If you look closely, Kelly does give us a hint that it is indeed a tennis court he is attempting to portray. Along the top edge of the canvas, among the smudges, you will see a tiny splotch of pale green paint. This could be construed as a stray marking, but seeing how calculated Kelly’s other works are, I have no doubt that it is part of the design. This almost microscopic green dot brings the piece together, showing that yes, this is a tennis court, no matter how rudimentary the resemblance. This technique is akin to what David does with “Death of Marat.”
I would love to know more about the background of “Tennis Court,” but I am not even able to find a picture of it online. The tag at the museum said it was painted in Paris, but other than that I know nothing about it. I would like to know exactly in what context Kelly painted it and what he was trying to achieve. None of his other paintings or works are at all similar to it in technique and outward expression. Only when viewed with squinted eyes does one see the essence of Kelly’s expression within this piece. It is quite unique that Kelly is not able to escape his style, no matter how dissimilar it appears to be from the rest of his works.