Ellsworth Kelly at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Installation of Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective at The Guggenheim Museum

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Ellsworth Kelly and the Guggenheim Museum were made for each other.

If it has become all but obligatory, before discussing any show at the uptown Guggenheim, to gripe about the museum’s inhospitality to art, then it must be conceded that his work feels at home in Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda. Kelly is an artist for whom the marriage of art and architecture has long been a fundamental concern, and his cognizance of how space and art shape each other is keen.

Walking up the second rung of the museum and coming upon a balcony overlooking a gallery housing some of Kelly’s largest canvases is an agreeable experience. These pieces, with their skewed and sloping curves, carry on a conversation with Wright’s building that is sympathetic and often funny. Kelly undoubtedly had input (and probably a few sleepless nights as well) over how best to exhibit his art at the Guggenheim, and his retrospective is marked by a master’s sense of execution. Although Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective contains over 250 objects, occupying almost the entire museum, it is never a chore to walk through. Indeed, the exhibit makes for a pleasurable stroll.

The cardinal reason for this is that Kelly’s oeuvre is resolute—utterly so, one is tempted to add. His is an art of single-minded clarity and there is no fuss or muss at the Guggenheim. With the exception of his collages and drawings, which are more open to chance and process, there are no untidy patches in Kelly’s geometries. His abstractions take as their inspiration fragments of observed reality: the way shadows on a stairwell establish their own staccato rhythm or afternoon light falling on an architectural detail creates random angles. (Some of these are recorded in the artist’s photographs included here.) Shape, color, contour, and mass are then carefully configured, so that each piece maximizes the intensity of concentrated, not to say minimal, formal means. What the viewer is finally presented with is an art where the false starts and wrong turns have been eliminated. We feel the consideration in each piece and appreciate the decisions the artist has made. No one will ever mistake Kelly for anything but a serious artist.

Photograph of Ellsworth Kelly by Fred R. Conrad; courtesy The New York Times

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While Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective is filled with paintings and sculpture, one leaves the exhibition not quite thinking of Kelly as a painter or a sculptor. He’s not interested in the sensual qualities of paint; as a painter, he gets the job done. The brushstrokes that bunch up along the edge of the centralized form in City Island (1958) are as involved with paint handling as Kelly gets. Likewise, Kelly’s sculpture rarely inhabits space as such but, instead, handsomely squats in a declarative manner. Consequently, one thinks of Kelly as being foremost an artist or, should one say, Artist. This distinction may seem niggling (or glib), but it is an important one. Kelly’s work so consciously announces its status as art that it conveys neither enthusiasm nor passion. It commands respect. One imagines Kelly wants it that way.

Kelly came of age as an artist at a time when American art, specifically Abstract Expressionism, first garnered international attention. He spent his formative years in Paris, taking up residence there in 1948, and was at a geographical and psychological distance from the hurly-burly verities of the New York School. Much has been made of Kelly’s European influences (he would leave Paris for New York in 1954) and of his contact with such seminal figures as Georges Vantongerloo and Constantin Brancusi. Only a dunce would deny the role European culture played in Kelly’s maturation as an artist, but this emphasis has been overplayed.

Writing in the catalogue, Diane Waldman contrasts Kelly’s “sensibility shaped by his admiration for European culture” with the Abstract Expressionist’s “new American art.” There is a modicum of truth in this comparison. But it’s hard to see how Blue Ripe (1959), an homage to Jean Arp and one of Kelly’s best paintings, is any more European—or any less American— than, say, de Kooning’s Excavation. Kelly’s stylistic difference from Abstract Expressionism seems less indicative of influence than of personality. Kelly’s poker-faced pragmatism can make him seem the quintessential homeboy, as American as mom, apple pie, and Jasper Johns.

Ellsworth Kelly, Orange Red Relief (1959), oil on canvas on two joined panels, 60″ x 60″; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Kelly’s best-known works are his shaped canvases. They are also his most problematic. Although Kelly explored irregular supports early in his career, he did not do so consistently until the mid-1960s. It was then that he employed idiosyncratic supports that broke with the rectangular format while simultaneously referring, however obliquely, to it. The monochromatic Yellow Piece (1966), a canvas with two of its corners bending into curves, relies on the viewer’s reading of it as an incomplete square for it to work. As a play on format, Yellow Piece is genial and not uncute. But the point of the rectangular support is that it provides a stable and, to an extent anyway, neutral support wherein the artist creates pictorial tension. Once this essential tenet has been violated, the canvas calls attention to itself primarily as an object and fails as a painting.

There are exceptions, of course, but only when the irregular format has an overriding basis in the painting’s form, and then just barely. Kelly’s shaped canvases may concern themselves with pictorial issues—say, the relationship between figure and ground— but they do so in a way that denies painting’s metaphorical capabilities. His paintings, then, are simply things on the wall— pleasing to the eye in their proportions and color, to be certain—but things nonetheless. But what kinds of things are they exactly?

“Unenclosed by the usual rectangle,” writes Carter Ratcliff in his essay on Kelly’s curved canvases, “Kelly’s monochromes do not establish an impermeable barrier between pictorial space and the space of the gallery. Instead of resting within their own borders, they sweep across the wall … without the wall they would have no ground.” That the wall serves as a ground for his shapes is obvious and Kelly’s point. (“To hell with pictures—they should be the wall …” wrote the young artist to John Cage in September of 1950.)

So why not paint such a cropped and swerving shape on a rectangular canvas? The painter Ross Neher once wrote that a Mondrian would cohere as an independent entity, as a painting, even if it were displayed on a garbage heap. Kelly’s shaped canvases would not survive such a stringent test; they are dependent on the spaces where they are displayed. The ropes cordoning them off at the Guggenheim aren’t there to protect the pieces: they are there to force the viewer to back up and take in the wall as part of the work. Kelly’s shaped canvases are about placement, lighting, architecture, and ornamentation; in short, elegant and oversized chachkas.

Kelly is a savvy decorator, however. The topmost tower gallery of the Guggenheim contains the triptych Three Panels: Orange, Dark Gray, Green (1986), as well as other shaped canvases, and the installation is inspired. The gallery is electric, swinging with rhythm and color. Standing in the center of it, one gets an appreciation for Kelly’s attention to the subtleties of color, shape, and architectural space, for an art that (to paraphrase the artist himself) meets the eye directly. But neither is one tempted to ponder individual pieces for too long. Each piece has been so finely honed that it becomes, in a sense, perfect, and who needs that? The finest of Kelly’s shaped canvases isn’t, in fact, a canvas at all but a wide fan-like object created out of panels of birchwood. Perhaps Curve XXI (1978–80) succeeds because it is so bluntly itself, sidestepping Kelly’s stuffy formalist machinations. Or maybe it’s because the grain of the birchwood is as sensual a surface as one is likely to find in Kelly’s work.

Ellsworth Kelly, Curve Seen From A Highway, Austerlitz, New York (1970), silver gelatin print, 27.9 cm. x 35.6 cm.; courtesy the artist

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Those who think Kelly too steadfast an artist will favor his plant drawings and collages, and for good reason. It is here that Kelly relishes the creative process instead of honors it. His small, Dadaesque postcard collages are charming and proof positive that Kelly isn’t always a sobersides. Part of the collages’ appeal comes in recognizing motifs that have found their way into Kelly’s larger works. The bent, elongated rectangle superimposed over the title figure in Statue of Liberty (1957) tells us almost as much about Ellsworth Kelly’s notion of sculpture as some of his sculptures do. Kelly’s plant drawings are beautifully rendered if, at times, a mite precious. (Even when relaxing Kelly can be on his guard.) Lemon Branch (1964), with its drooping leaves which gently touch the bottom edge of the paper, is vintage Kelly in its equilibrium. Also of note is the mechanically kinetic Fields on a Map (1950) and Alan Kelly, Sr. (1982), a portrait of the artist’s father on his deathbed and as concise a contour drawing as one could hope for.

In the October issue of Artforum, Michael Brenson writes that “Kelly’s abstractions are not so much true to what he has seen as to the moment in which a flower or bunker makes its existence known. By being true to that moment … he has made attentiveness indispensable to the creative imagination.” The work that best exemplifies this aspect of Kelly’s vision are his photographs; they are, in many ways, definitive. Here Kelly’s love of the mysteries of perception are celebrated instead of ratiocinated. The slow, tender arc of the snowbank in Curve Seen from a Highway, Austerlitz, New York (1970) is evocative and surprising in a way that his curved paintings never are. Devotees of Kelly’s work may recognize these echoes of (as Brenson has it) “attentiveness” in the large pieces, but I wonder how true this is for the viewer who comes to the work cold, unfamiliar with the artist’s working methods. Kelly’s gift for shape, color, and scale are unquestionable and will make themselves known to anyone who takes the time to look at the work. But his ability to make them connect in ways that go beyond the merely accomplished is limited. There is little in Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective that will evoke strong emotion. There is, however, much to esteem. Perhaps it is enough that we should be grateful for small gifts in big packages.

© 1996 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 1996 edition of The New Criterion.

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