One Halloween when Ellsworth Kelly was a child, he saw a window in the distance filled with color: red, blue, and black. He had to go see what made that color. "It was a red couch, a blue drapery, and something else," Kelly, one of the great abstract painters of the 20th century, recalls in "Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments," a clear-sighted new film by Edgar B. Howard.
"I looked in the window, and I couldn't find it," he says of what had drawn him to the window in the first place. So he backed away to look again. The window, with all its colors, he says, was "that aperture of fragmentation."
Kelly, now in his 80s and still a vital working artist, has been looking at fragments ever since, distilling ordinary things such as windows, Turkish toilets, and crushed paper cups into their essential forms and elevating them to something that verges on holy.
This straight-ahead documentary is no biopic: It focuses only on Kelly's art. It begins following the artist as he revisits the streets of Paris, where his lean vision took hold around 1950. Interviews with curators and art historians such as Robert Storr circle the presentation of Kelly's oeuvre, elucidating his influences (Monet, Arp) and tracing the spiraling trajectory of his paintings and sculptures.
The artist is a keen and humble presence throughout the film. He's a master of color, but his approach has always been intuitive, not strategic. Kelly describes Josef Albers's reaction to Kelly's first solo show in New York, in 1956.
"Kelly, what color theory did you use?" demanded Albers, the dean of color theorists.
The answer: None.
"It looks it!" Albers retorted.
Kelly needs no color theory. As formally economical and taut as it is, much of his work is based on chance and dreaming. Howard lets the building blocks of Kelly's aesthetic tumble through the film with a kind of brio and seeming randomness that match the artist's working style. It's only toward the end, when Kelly takes us to Chartres and points out the rotating orientation of the square panels in the cathedral's north rose window, that we see a line tying so many of Kelly's own slightly spinning, squarish paintings together across the decades.
In between, Howard takes us from Paris to Manhattan to Spencerville, N.Y., where the artist ultimately settled. Boston brackets the narrative: Kelly went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where the limited curriculum had him painting nudes in the morning and drawing nudes in the afternoon. He returned in the 1990s for a remarkable commission at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, where he installed "The Boston Panels," a series of flat rectangular monochromes against the curving rotunda walls. "You can see fragments wherever you are," he observes of the paintings as he walks through the courthouse.
For Kelly, the fragments of what we see - the cast of a shadow along a stairwell, the blur of colors in a window on Halloween - represent something larger, even more whole, than whatever it is they come from. Pared down, they entice us to see more actively. Howard's film ultimately functions as do the walls upon which many of Kelly's paintings hang: It's the ground against which we can see the figure. And the art, as Kelly himself points out, is the figure.