Ernst Velletsch (1924-99), the American painter whose soporiferous explorations of amorphousness made him one of the more indefinable artists of the 1960s and 1970s, is the subject of a major retrospective at the East Hampton Museum for the Visual Arts. The show — blank white canvases — which, superficially, appears lacking in depth, illustrates how Mr. Velletsch transcended the boundaries of modern conceptualism and conceptual modernism. His paradigmatic dictum, “Art is nothing,” still remains something of an unsung rallying cry.
Among artists who were not widely recognized, Mr. Velletsch was widely recognized for his idiosyncratic recontextualizing of the post-Duchampian lexicon.
Originally an Abstract Non-Expressionist, Mr. Velletsch is best known for his 1970s proto-Nonexistentist works. Although these pieces’ lack of propulsive power remains difficult to come to terms with, they still retain their ability to underwhelm. As Egon Benedikt, Mr. Velletsch’s longtime dealer, remarked, “There is less than meets the eye” to Mr. Velletsch’s work.
Ernst Velletsch was born on March 3, 1924, in Grinnell, Iowa. His father, a closeted heterosexual, was the proprietor of what was then the largest oboe dealership in the Midwest. His mother was active in the Amalgamated Pastry Chefs Union.
Mr. Velletsch rebelled against both parents, but undoubtedly felt the lasting influence of his mother, a debt he refused to acknowledge. In a letter to his friend, the critic Manny Farber, he commented on her impact: “Pastry?”
Farber, who was sympathetic, responded by saying, “Let’s break bread and discuss this further,” to which Mr. Velletsch replied, “I’d rather discuss it over a meal.”
Mr. Velletsch’s formal art studies began in late 1949 when he was invited to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. In an interview at his studio in Springs shortly before his death, he recalled spending a happy summer there. “I painted several of the smaller buildings,” he said. “It was a lot of work. A lot of paint.”
Mr. Velletsch’s dedication caught the attention of a classmate, Ellsworth Kelly, who was impressed by his proficiency with solid colors. The men became good friends, and when Kelly purchased a home in Spencertown, N.Y., he commissioned Mr. Velletsch to paint the house, which he did using Benjamin Moore white in a matte finish. This led to a falling out, as Kelly preferred an eggshell finish. The two men reconciled years later when Benjamin Moore introduced its Regal Select line of paints, which, both agreed, offered premium performance and smooth application.
After leaving Skowhegan, Mr. Velletsch spent a year at the giant Studebaker plant in South Bend, Ind. Although he gained valuable experience with durable, high-gloss finishes, he was often ambivalent about the company’s color choices.
His next stop was Brooklyn College, where he studied for a year with Ad Reinhardt, whose message of minimalist, almost total abstraction would provide a lasting influence. Reinhardt, for his part, saw something interesting in Mr. Velletsch’s work, although, as his journals reveal, he couldn’t describe it. “His painting is better than it looks,” he wrote, “but not as good as it seems.”
The critic Clement Greenberg was less kind. When asked what he thought of Mr. Velletsch’s works in the seminal 1954 group show at the Tworsky Gallery, he remarked that he “didn’t even realize they were in the exhibition.”
The comment stung Mr. Velletsch. Indeed, during his life he was plagued by self-doubt, depression, despair, and anxiety — although these eased somewhat after his death.
Despite a lack of recognition or remuneration, Mr. Velletsch continued to refine his concepts, stripping his work to its most elemental level. “I try to use as little paint as possible,” he wrote to Peggy Guggenheim.
By 1955, after the death of his parents and the inheritance of a considerable sum, Mr. Velletsch was living and working in Springs, in a spacious turn-of-the-century house overlooking Accabonac Harbor, with a large converted barn as his studio. Among his many visitors were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Geldzahler, and Art Linkletter.
It was through his friendship with Ginsberg that Mr. Velletsch received a commission to paint the 1939 International Harvester school bus that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters planned to use on a road trip in the summer of 1964. Mr. Velletsch, drawing upon his earlier work at Studebaker, experimented with a chrome yellow pigment, but soon decided “to eliminate color entirely.” Over several weeks in the spring of 1964, he applied one coat of white lacquer then used a white urethane spray paint over that. Kesey’s reaction was not recorded, but the bus was immediately repainted in bold psychedelic colors and designs.
Despite a string of personal setbacks in the late 1960s and 1970s and the rare sale of his work, Mr. Velletsch remained uncompromising. He continued to apply a meticulously controlled non-spontaneity to his later pieces, and most would admit he succeeded.
He also turned to writing, perhaps as a means of settling old grudges. His notorious 1978 essay, “This Is Not a Painting,” published in The New Leader, critiqued Franz Kline at length and urged him to “eschew his cheap and self-serving gestural velocity.” This stance created a significant controversy and was somewhat perplexing, as Kline had died in 1962. Mr. Velletsch was unrepentant: “I’ve been saying this for 25 years.”
Certainly, Mr. Velletsch’s blank white canvases at the East Hampton Museum — many of which have no paint — exhibit a profound absence of gestural velocity. Mr. Velletsch’s metier has always been a stark, meditative energy coupled with an authoritative banality. His bold rejection of technique, realism, and abstraction come together in the vastness of the museum’s space.
The show comprises 163 canvases, all of which are white and unframed. The pieces, devoid of external references, are at once deeply disturbing and monumentally unstimulating. But they have the power to knock a viewer off his feet and make him exclaim, “By God, the man had integrity.” And so, in the end, we put up with Mr. Velletsch’s harsh Weltanschauung and uncompromising radicalism in order to experience the power of his austere monotony.
“Ernst Velletsch: Nonexistence” will be at the East Hampton Museum for the Visual Arts through October 2019.
David Schiff is a writer and investigative journalist. For many years he wrote Schiff’s Insurance Observer. He has been coming to East Hampton since 1963 and can be reached at DavidLSchiff@mac.com.