Embodied Presence: Ellsworth Kelly, 1923-2015
In 1963 William Rubin identified in the work of Ellsworth Kelly “a particularly American combination of hedonism and the puritanical.” Kelly, who died December 27th, aged 92, at his home in Spencertown, NY, was, indeed, an artist who defied easy categorization. An exponent neither of minimal art, color field abstraction nor hard edge geometric abstraction, Kelly’s hybridity was equally typified by his diversity of medium, ranging from three dimensional layered canvases to free standing, flat, sometimes folded, painted metal objects. Always deceptively simple, the focused acuity of his work could be mistaken as reductionist, or purely formal, if viewed too quickly or carelessly. He settled early in his career into a preoccupation with observed line and shape, often realized in exactingly defined forms with intensely saturated color, or through the contrasts of black and white. He continued to explore such subject matter with the same urgency his entire life. In a recently -filmed interview we see him gesture towards paintings in his studio that he had to finish, he said, within his lifetime. There was no letting up, for this artist, exhibiting in all four of Matthew Marks’ gallery spaces in May and June of this year.
Before moving from Paris to New York, in 1954, Kelly had spent the previous six years working and traveling in France—a hugely formative experience that set him apart from the Abstract Expressionist scene, setting him up for the independent orientation that would characterize his position in the city he where he would soon be living and working. In France it was the non-performative abstraction of Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi that most absorbed Kelly. An appreciation of Romanesque churches, meanwhile, led to an awareness of painting’s relationship to architecture. The move to New York was, in part, inspired by a favorable review of Ad Reinhardt that signaled possibilities for his own distinctly non-gestural work back home.
The spare and rigorous beauty of Kelly’s paintings continued a process of refinement and depth that was unabated. The search for shapes and colors that correspond to the memory of selective visual events made his art thoroughly life-engaged, a way for memory to remain in the present tense in relationships between forms and colors. Though his paintings were often derived from things actually seen—the source admittedly not usually evident—in the sublime plant drawings the source was, of course, abundantly clear. But the same visual pleasure and intellectual curiosity in found or revealed form evident across his oeuvre, whether in drawings, paintings, collages, carved reliefs or painted objects. His works derive from, and bear, deep contemplation,
The select number of artists truly able to sustain passionate reverie in distilled form makes one realize, how difficult and rare is the ability to expose emotion and poise in subtly modulated, streamlined form. Blinky Palermo, himself indebted to Kelly, is one such artist. Another example would be the late cut papers of Matisse, . Kelly’s project for the design of a chapel offers comparison to Matisse’s own Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence on the Côte d’Azur. Kelly’s chapel designs, dating from the 1980s, were gifted by the artist earlier this year to the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas which is working towards its realization. Fittingly, the chapel brings full circle Kelly’s French connection. In 1951, he had made a trip to see Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles where he had noticed the large colored panels on the façade. “I didn’t want to use color for decoration but I liked the idea of color used in architecture,” he has said. After a lifetime of producing dynamically balanced paintings and sculptures, it is anticipated that architecture and the colored light from colored glass windows will add to and combine with the experience of a suite of black and white paintings in Kelly’s chapel. As with Matisse’s chapel, another great colorist and innovator will offer us an immersive, sensual encounter that amounts to the deletion of boundary between physically felt space and visually allusive color and light—a spirituality, embodied in the continuous present.