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Driven To Abstraction

His war service may be a clue to Ellsworth Kelly’s apparently simple works, writes Sue Conley

Sometimes art is made so simply that you think: "There's got to be more going on here." When you're reading a book and don't think you're getting the whole story, you can read between the lines. This seems harder to do with visual arts, 'til you realise that 'line' is an element in drawing and painting, and you can 'read' between these as well. In any sort of reading between the lines, context is everything.

Ellsworth Kelly is an American artist, and, despite my similar provenance, I would only be glancingly acquainted with his works. He was working at a time of great production in the Abstract Expressionist art scene, and was going against the grain of this trend, and has perhaps been overshadowed by his contemporaries.

One of said contemporaries was Jackson Pollock. Kelly's oeuvre, which was primarily concerned with big shapes in bright colours, may look rather simplistic when compared with Pollock's hurricanes of pigment; Kelly's optimistic palette and regimented canvasses can be 'read' however, as a different reaction to his life and times.

The Second World War had thrown the globe into chaos, and the artists of the time reacted to that feeling of fear and displacement. While Pollock seemed to be trying to reap the whirlwind, Kelly appeared to be attempting to enforce order on a disordered system. Perhaps his palette is a reaction to the horrors of war that he himself would have experienced firsthand.

Kelly served, as many artists of the time did, in the Ghost Army, a tactical force employed by the US Army to confuse the enemy by impersonating genuine forces. The 1,100 troops used to caper about, quite near enemy lines, using inflatable tanks and play-acting. Is Kelly's vibrant work a reaction to all this cloak-and- dagger stuff? If so, you need to rethink the plainness of the work, which now presents itself as one man's attempt to brighten and confine energy and form.

Ellsworth Kelly: Drawings 1954-62 opens on Wednesday at the Hugh Lane Gallery. See www.hughlane.ie