Ellsworth Kelly: Matrix, Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24 Street and 522 West 22nd Street
Ellsworth Kelly: Self-Portrait Drawings 1944-1992 at Matthew Marks Gallery, 529 West 21 Street, through June 28, 212-243-0200
Frank Stella: Recent Work, Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue, through June 28, 212-563-4474
Suzan Frecon Paintings, Lawrence Markey Gallery, 42 East 76th Street, through June 14, 212.517.9892
What happens to proto-minimalists when their creativity outspans their spawn’s? Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella, veterans of the extreme reductivism of the 1960s, inserted themselves into 101 Art History on the page just before Minimalism. But they managed to outlive – and arguably outgrow – such key minimalists as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. They were both pioneers of the shaped canvas: monochrome in Mr. Kelly’s case, pinstriped in Mr. Stella’s.
Mr. Kelly’s work fills three separate spaces of the Matthew Marks Gallery, with paintings ranging from 1999 to this year and self-portrait drawings from 1944-92. The experience of seeing eight of the shaped and multi-paneled canvases in a grand industrial space is disconcertingly scaleless. One can stand at a similar proportional distance to these large works as a reader does to pictures in a book, and it is in the nature of Mr. Kelly’s depersonalized aesthetic that his monochrome shapes assume the emblematic quality of graphic design. For instance, “Red with White Relief” (2002), a near rectangle of red with a white triangle superimposed at the cut-away top left, reads like a shirt launderer’s logo. Other works, however, are richly satisfying in their subtle perceptual complexity. Not the prim rectangles of clinical color, so much as the more sumptuously colored trapezoids and curved forms. These free-float on the wall and in the imagination alike.
It is not unprecedented for Mr. Kelly or his curators to present works based on direct observation in relation to his severe geometric abstractions. The 1996 Guggenheim retrospective offered discrete rooms of his photographs, linear drawings of flora, and collages. At a banal level, these ameliorate the severity of his abstraction. In the case of the current exhibitions, however, the heightened shape-awareness induced by Mr. Kelly’s best paintings carries across to what would otherwise appear conventional, if accomplished, self-portraits. Harry Cooper deftly argues for such a reading of these self-images in the handsomely produced catalog.
There is an extraordinary range of styles in these drawings- including tight, illustrative realism, modern classicism, and hints of the modernism of Klee, Matisse, and Picasso. One from 1949 recalls the clipped angst of Lucian Freud, who was actually in Paris at the same time. Despite varieties of line-quality, from bold Chinese brushwork to spindly penmanship, and subtle fluctuations of emotion, from boyish aloofness to a suitable nervousness – in 1987, while strapped up at the Mayo Clinic – there is unmistakable unity of purpose and personality in this remarkable body of drawings.
If Mr. Kelly anticipated Minimalism, Mr. Stella precipitated it. Where Mr. Kelly strove for the cool impersonality of Byzantine icons, Mr. Stella could coldly assert, “What you see is what you see.” It is not so surprising, therefore, that while Mr. Kelly’s career has glided along its serene path, Mr. Stella’s has been marked by violent oscillations and seeming contradictions. Formally speaking, the smart-assed cerebrality of the early, black-stripe paintings are a far cry from the histrionic graffiti-baroque reliefs of the 1980s and 1990s. But the differing styles connect at the level of provocation..
The new sculptures on view at Paul Kasmin are, by the standards of their immediate predecessors at the same gallery in winter 2001, relatively couth. The aluminum tubes, pipes, and trusses out of which they are made are uncolored – mercifully, as Mr. Stella is a consumate vulgarian in color. One piece from 1998-02, “Die Kurfurstin (The Electoress),” is from his von Kleist series and relates to the joyous extravaganza unveiled at the National Gallery in Washington in 2001. It uses a white fiberglass material to magical spiraling effect, recalling the Russian Constructivists as well as the roofs of various Guggenheims.
In similar playful mood, “Bamboo Trophy I” (2002), evokes the crown on the Statue of Liberty. But while whimsy, exuberance, and invention are in bountiful supply in these generally likeable works, it’s impossible to get too much sculptural purchase on them. In the absence of convincing structure and form relationship, his disposition of effects is ultimately gratuitous. The artist’s claim that his 3-D works are paintings not sculptures smacks of special pleading on behalf of scatter. Overload proves a poor surrogate for complexity.
Suzan Frecon brings an intimist sensibility to the genre of hard-edge abstraction. A show of new work, which closes this weekend, offers a painterly antidote to the brutal elegance of Ellsworth Kelly. Even in pared down, minimal compositions, her touch is soft, subtle, and alive. In much the way that Mr. Kelly’s austere abstraction is somehow humanized by his drawings and photographs, appreciation of Ms. Frecon’s is augmented by her watercolors. They are not on view at Lawrence Markey this time, but their quirky deliberated handwriting and vaguely primitive, non-western shape vocabulary find equivalents in theinvested surfaces of her oil paintings and their subtle orientalism. (There are intimations of the turban, the scimitar, and Moorish archways among her new motifs.) Palette has a lot to do with Ms. Frecon’s tenderness: She abstains from the primaries or cool, clinical colors to explore wine reds and terra cottas and pulsating greens. Her painterly touch strikes a gorgeous balance between restraint and sensuality.
This article first appeared in The Sun, June 12, 2003print