Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks

Ellsworth Kelly has been exhibiting for longer than most of us have been alive, so it seems pointless to cavil about the work. If I sound less than enthusiastic, that’s both true and not true.

I am not a fan of his paintings. They leave me completely unmoved. But his works on paper, over half a century old, still jump off the wall.

Ellsworth Kelly installation at Matthew Marks Gallery, up through April 11


Let’s start with the paintings. In the large gallery at 522 W. 22nd Street, eight works from 2007 and 2008—each a colored rectangle of stretched canvas placed diagonally atop a more square rectangle of white canvas—are meant to challenge your perception of shape and space. While I always like seeing color and shape, I have to admit that I'm not particularly challenged by this work. But their installation in this gallery provides an experience. The illumination from the skylights creates luminous parallelograms that float like visual echoes above the pigmented shapes, which hover slightly away from the wall. But you have to stand at a remove--as I did to shoot the photographs--to take in the mise-en-scene. Once you break through the fourth wall, so to speak, the drama is gone.


Now let me do a 180 and say that I love the works on paper, on view in the small space next door at #525. Created between 1954 and 1962, these small framed works in gouache (or oil, ink and/or graphite) feature shapes, abstracted from natural forms, as well as some purely geometric compositions. They are intimate, inquisitive, fresh, still resonating with energy.

You can see some excellent installation shots on the gallery website, but let me show you a few up close:

In the gouache-on newsprint drawing above, I can't help but think of Jasper Johns's encaustic on newsprint Green Target. Johns and Kelly are contemporaries; I think they might even have been living on Coenties Slip downtown at the same time, so the visual connection might have been borne of geographic proximity
You're seeing some reflection in the glass from across the gallery--visible in the other pictures as well, even though I shot each individual work at an angle

Each of these works is about 14 x 16 inches. Look closely at the one above and you'll see that the same yellow rectangle which appears as a painting in the top photograph also appears here. Can you make it out? Here it's on a same-yellow ground, and of course it's much smaller, but it's interesting to see how Kelly's layered shapes have recurred

I love these variations on a theme


And there's that yellow rectangle again, below:



Brent Hallard said...
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Brent Hallard said...


In the interview last year with Vernissage, Kelly brought up some interesting points. He talked about a work made in Paris in 1955, a small run of canvases butted together, each canvas its own thing. The dynamic of the piece was obviously created by the color of each canvas, along with this 'one-thing-after-the-other'. A key work.

Here we are out of the picture plane. Something that Kelly would go back into later, and of which many of the drawings attest to such an inquiry.

Much later there was a shift back to this monochromatic, I think in the nineties it really started to look like 'it was the question'.

Various strategies followed:

• pull and weight [lessnes] of a monochrome canvas or powder-coated structure as a resting rectangle.

• tilts and dynamic shift of say Trapezoids or Irregular Quadrilaterals - monochromes.

• one-canvas-upon-another.

With the one-canvas-upon-another it came back to the Paris years: There was paint and it was on an object. Though instead of the processional, the one-upon-another took a new dynamic, creating a dual tension, including both the powerful hum of the rectangle, while adding the stunning force of another object, thus enters the 'architectural' diagonal, accentuating the real space, while keeping to painting. Here the two canvas shapes, I think, remained squared.

Eventually these, where one canvas remains this humming force. In the two images above that you have supplied Joanne, the 'almost not there white', it is so beautiful.
Atop of this you get this other dynamic, pairs of parallels in full force set to the diagonal organized using the under canvas as the coordinate. Everything fits. And at the same time there is infinite possibly.
There is this steadiness. and everything against. The body and its spirit somehow appear meshed.

tony said...

Spot on, Brent - as usual. Of the butted images shown I pick up the paradox track of the dialogue between affirmation & denial. At one instance one coloured element 'affirms' whilst the other seeks to 'deny', in the next the roles are reversed and finally there comes a moment when both elements come together to form a whole. Nothing is closed down; the paintings suggest in this potential for percepual change that their existence had a past, has a present and so invites the possibility of a future. Not bad really with 'nearly nothing' !

Anonymous said...

thanks Tony... though spewed out in a fashion that appears a mash of words.. bit too much multi-tasking... sorry! I'm glad you could translate:)

...the motif is there still, similar to the canvases that have the dual presence embedded in the one canvas, though here, in the current play, it just takes on a more material presence.
How this works is he's knocked out the illusion by creating yet another set of values.
You could be just looking at the swing of the colored shape, but it's so joined to the under canvas that even if the material and color presence that rests under the swing of the top canvas appears, logically, secondary, the under plays no less equal importance.
Very clear!
And that he has simplified the working process so there looks to be nothing happening at a random level, at the same time doesn't appear overly calculated or cold, is simply at testament to what you can achieve, with time, patience, and a lot of looking... and, as he says, the questioning just keeps getting tougher.

don't seem to be signed in...

Joanne Mattera said...

Brent and Tony--

I'm enjoying listening in to your conversation. But to be honest, your discussion and description of the work reaches me more deeply than the work itself.

Giovanni said...

I agree with you - I find Kelly's paintings to cold and calculated, and his drawings are more engaging. I think this show of sketches from a couple of years ago is even better than the one that is up currently:

tony said...

When something arrives at the hairline point of 'rightness' it is not unnatural that it may seem 'too cold and calculated' but if there is enough room to suggest the potential for change then the notion of transience/movement is given its place & with transience/movement comes 'life'. The works on paper seem to move visually at a faster speed and the comparative roughness of the edges give the impresssion of usage whereas the works on canvas are more weighted and slower moving. Consider the germination of a seed; slow-moving perhaps but strong enough to open wide a concrete slab.

Brent Hallard said...
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Brent Hallard said...

It appears Tony that we are here patting each other on the back. I'm sure I don't mean to.


When something arrives at the hairline point of 'rightness' it is not unnatural that it may seem 'too cold and calculated' but if there is enough room to suggest the potential for change then the notion of transience/movement is given its place & with transience/movement comes 'life',

I think that is just about it.

When something is working it may appear almost not working, or at least not huffing and puffing - Not that the drawings do that! They are brilliant, and beautiful. They hold the trace of immediacy and the gesture for change. They are, however, working things.

The paintings above are as far from mechanical as you can get. The labor looks effortless, as they represent years of working out, reworking. But also they hold years of wanting to get something right... as Tony puts arrives at the hairline point of 'rightness' to get something in 'Kelly's terms' right and useful.
These are not necessarily 'private terms' because, well, at least here, Tony and I can see what has gone on and what is moving.
The only thing that I might disagree with is I don't feel that they are moving 'slow'. When you look at them, just look, and I'm sure to be in their presence would be something else again... but in the process of looking you see how they are working and why they are working their 'pants off'. Though, like in the movies, it appears to be happening so effortlessly [unless you favor the slapstick, with the guy hopping up and down with one trouser leg on, one off, almost there, ready, but can't make it in time... there is a change of scene. Ouch!]

Here we are talking about being able to stand two-legged, walk around, see from different positions something that we can take in as a whole, while totally fascinated with how it's all coming up. I think that's something.
Joanne is not into it. That's fine. All the words in China will not change that. But who knows when 'being there' happens. That said, I'm looking at a squishy jpeg as 'being there'. But, what the heck, I'll self-license to see the fine fracture with the apparatus available.

Thanks Joanne for letting us trill and warble: To another bough, a branch, a protruding twig, to get to the last of the day's sun.

Dahlia said...

I found these intimate drawings and collages engaging with a dynamism completely missing from Kelly's paintings. While for some viewers the paintings next door are a distillation of 'perfection', I prefer the energy of these small scale explorations.
By the way, too bad the gallery didn't find a way to improve the lighting. It was nearly impossible to see any of these pieces without the distracting reflections.