Ellsworth Kelly: The art world’s quiet American

As Ellsworth Kelly comes to London, we look at the exhibition at the Guggenheim and at MoCA


Ellsworth Kelly’s work, in contrast to that of, say, Clifford Still or Mark Rothko, unfolds its internal logic more clearly and convincingly when seen in quantity rather than piecemeal. This was apparent in both, very different, American venues of the Kelly retrospective that is set to open at the Tate Gallery (until 17 September).

Despite the mixed reviews “Ellsworth Kelly” received, especially in New York, this retrospective does not appear to have diminished his high standing among American artists. It did introduce a new generation of artists to abstract painting and sculpture as a distinct mode of thinking about how art objects ought to take their places in the world.

East coast Ellsworth

At the Guggenheim, New York, Ellsworth Kelly’s works filled the entire Frank Lloyd Wright building and its new tower annex. Some 250 objects—paintings, sculpture, collages, drawings and photographs—gave an almost complete overview of the seventy-four year-old artist. Only his prints were omitted.

The two-storey gallery near the bottom of the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp accommodated impressively some of Kelly’s recent large wall pieces: monochrome shaped canvases whose oblique geometry can make a sold wall seem to give way illusionistically like a revolving door.

From that point forward, Kelly’s development unfurled upward along the spiral ramp in roughly chronological order. Drawings and collages on paper—and above all Kelly’s strikingly observant photographs–demonstrated the roots of his abstract work in patterned memories of things seen: the shadows of railings splintered as they fall across the steps of a steel staircase; a long-angle, corner view of a freshly cemented square of Manhattan sidewalk; the broad curve of a snow-covered hill against dark woods.

The chronology also made a point of Kelly’s choice to spend in France the years when the New York School was defining itself. By the time he settled in Manhattan in 1954, Kelly had already evolved his manner of working with unmodulated colour and simple, ambiguous shapes suggestive of silhouettes. The big forms that seem to bump against the limits of pictures such as “Black ripe” (1958) and the Tate’s own “Broadway” (1958) soon took form as objects in their own right, objects that downplay distinctions between painting and sculpture with a tact absent from the work of boundary-crashers like Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg.

All along, Kelly took his own approach to issues of figure and ground that preoccupied painters as different in temperament as Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning.

In their day, series of monochrome panels by Kelly such as “Green red yellow blue” (1965) resolved problems of how to give fullness to a painting without composition or detail. But such problems have receded so far from artists’ and critics’ current concerns as to leave Kelly’s monochromes—at least the strictly rectangular ones—looking like period artifacts. Yet although some of Kelly’s paintings of the 1950s look like precursors of Minimalism, most of his work has worn better than the hard-edged abstraction associated with it in the 1960s.

Many visitors complained that the Guggenheim show was overfull. A couple of critics wrote that the show’s scope unintentionally revealed the thinness of Kelly’s achievement. Even people who saw the retrospective as confirming Kelly’s stature among American abstractionists thought it unfortunate that the show appeared at the Guggenheim.

For while great trouble was taken to level the floors within some of the bays along the spiral ramp, the slope of the ramp itself was, as always, an inescapable sensation. It could not help but unbalance the geometry of Kelly’s shaped canvases, which were made in, and for, spaces with level floors and upright walls. One entered the tower annexe galleries with relief, for here right angles prevailed.

West Coast Kelly

What is at stake in Kelly’s art, formally and philosophically, was easier to perceive in the retrospective’s second, abridged appearance at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), Los Angeles.

Pared down to forty works on canvas and a few sculptures, the Kelly show was installed under his guidance in MoCA’s Arata Isozaki-designed building at California Plaza. The exhibition design was startlingly compact and intimate. Kelly had temporary walls built that gave maze-like articulation to the Isozaki building’s south gallery, a huge rectangular box that strangely seems more airless the emptier it is.

Missing here were the works on paper and, most crucially, the photographs that record the mundane sources of Kelly’s vision. The trade-off was a much closer view of the paintings than most of the Guggenheim installation allowed.

Kelly’s work may be seen as one expression of a perennial American taste that equates simplicity with virtue. Yet there is no sense of puritan austerity about it. Kelly’s abstraction is neither a withholding of richness nor a search for essences. His paintings—and the better sculptures, under-represented in LA—are devices for questioning the privacy of perception and the insubstantiality of spiritual values.