Re-evaluating Ellsworth Kelly at 100

Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum IX, 2014, acrylic on canvas, twelve joined panels, © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Photo: Ron Amstutz, Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) is one of those artists whose status I’ve never understood. While he is held in high esteem by many, I’ve always questioned his significance. Don’t get me wrong, I like his work, but liking it doesn’t necessarily make it significant. His work is elegant, refined, and smart, and yet even in the 1950s-70s, it seemed conservative against the backdrop of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism. What made Kelly different from his peers was that when he was living and studying in Paris after World War2 on the GI Bill, while many of his fellow artists from the States were exploring lyric abstraction and L’informale, Kelly was looking at Art Concrete and had begun to make multi-canvas paintings.

When I was living in Cologne in the mid-1980s, there was a Georgia O’Keeffe show at the Ludwig Museum. My German friends kept asking me why she was so important in the States when in the 1920s and 1930s, they had dozens of painters like her. I could only answer that she was the only one we had. Similarly, when Kelly was first being recognized in the 1950s and 1960s, Kelly before the advent of Minimalism was one of the few artists in the States who along with Leon Polk Smith, and Carmen Herrera, had followed a reductivist path.

The exhibit Ellsworth Kelly at 100 at the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, gave me an opportunity to reevaluate Kelly. Although not a full-blown retrospective, in that it consists of only 70 works, many of these works on paper, collage, and photography it does hit many of the high points. The exhibition features several iconic works that are key to understanding his approach to art-making, both visually and intellectually. For instance, Blue Black (1953) highlights Kelly’s use of simple geometric shapes to create a rhythmic visual effect, while Spectrum V (1969) showcases his interest in optical color. Similarly, Red Curve (1982) demonstrates his engagement with organic forms and their potential for suggesting movement. Many of these works have not been seen in decades.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, influenced by Jean Arp’s use of randomness, chance, and collage, Kelly began employing these principles in his work by segmenting paintings and reassembling the parts as in La Combe II (1951) a painting consisting of a series of nine nonaligned fragments, hinged together like a screen. This was followed by such works as Painting for a White Wall (1952) and Painting in Three Panels (1956) which are composed of multiple monochromatic panels. Eventually, drawing inspiration from these experiments with composition and format as image, Kelly came to focus on his works’ perceptual and cognitive instability— at the core of this was the visual tension between the literal and the pictorial, what one sees and what one knows to be there. With this, he began to use color to create a sense of mass and form and use formats that deviated from the standard rectangular canvas.

Filtered through his reductive aesthetic sensibility, Kelly’s project is only somewhat classicist, in that it never becomes purist or essentialist. In actuality, what one may take away from this exhibit is that Kelly is truly an op-artist. Obviously, not the type of Op associated with Terry Riley, or Victor Vasarely, which distorts the viewer’s perception by depending on retinal tricks, discordant figure-ground relationships, or employing patterns that create optical illusions. Kelly instead focused on the relationship between what one sees and what one knows to be there, while blurring the lines between the literal and the abstract. Avoiding the theatrics of optical illusions and retinal tricks, Kelly concerned himself instead with the mind’s tendency to flatten things into patterns or to miss-read conflicting visual data– such as in his relief paintings where two distinct forms are placed on top of one another in a manner that they share common edges. When seen frontally one mistakenly reads the painting as flat.  Despite the fact that these works are elegant, there is something unnerving about the inability to resolve the conflict between what we see and what we know. In this, Kelly is like a slight-of-hand magician, where even when you know how the trick is done, you are still fooled. This is why no matter how formulaic, repetitive, corporate, and interior design-ish Kelly works gets, his paintings and sculptures are never merely decorative.

Most importantly, what I became aware of from Ellsworth Kelly at 100 is that throughout his career, Kelly approached painting and sculpture as phenomenological events. Phenomenology is the study of the relation between human experience and consciousness and examines how we perceive and make sense of the world around us. While this may sound high-minded and esoteric, it simply means that Kelly uses form, color, line, and space to explore the boundaries not of painting and sculpture but of our perception. Each of his works, therefore, presents cognitive and perceptual propositions. This is evident in the recreation of Austin (2018), a piece originally designed specifically for a gallery at the Blanton Museum of Art in Texas. This room-sized floor piece blurs the line between the art-work and its setting.  This large yellow form lying on the floor distorts our perception of the room it is housed in. With such works this exhibition highlights how Kelly’s simple forms reveal underlying complexities. This emphasis on embodied experience holds both formal importance as well as potential political implications. It challenges the notion that abstract art is detached and cerebral.

The conflict between a refined aesthetic and a phenomenological approach to painting is nothing new—it has been with us since the earliest days of the modern era in the 1500s–yet since the 1980s, this concern for the perceptual and cognitive has been sublimated by the Post-Modernist critique of Formalism and Modernism as being elitist, socially detached, and literal.  Suffice it to say, such a reading has resulted in a serious misunderstanding of formalism. The key point is that for Kelly the viewing of his work is an embodied event. The viewer is an active participant rather than a passive recipient. Central to this is the notion of presence and self-reflection, which represents a form of existential resistance to the sense of alienation ushered in by the Machine Age, which is amplified by the process of dematerialization associated with newer technologies.

From a political perspective, Kelly’s emphasis on embodied experience can be seen as a rejection of the subjectivism and intellectualization that proliferated during the post-Abstract Expressionism era. Consequently, the physicality of Kelly’s work can be viewed as a form of resistance against the narratives and ideologies of standardization, reproduction, and simulation that gained prominence in the 1960s-70s. This loss of physicality is why most reproductions make Kelly’s art appear to be graphic or incomprehensible. Today this prioritizing of the viewer’s direct encounter and momentary doubt can be understood as an implicit political act in an era where political art increasingly involves engaging with the narrative and anecdotal imagery of social issues.

Ellsworth Kelly at 100 will be on view from May 4, 2023 to March of 2024 and will travel to international venues following its presentation at Glenstone.

About the Writer: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.

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