Ellsworth Kelly at the Serpentine Gallery
18 March – 21 May 2006
On entering the Serpentine Gallery the viewer is immediately flanked by two paintings consisting of arcs on rectangular or trapezoid grounds, each creating a subtle echo of the other. As in many of the works in this Ellsworth Kelly show, they consist of two discrete panels overlaid and creating a relief space despite the logic of extreme flatness that is rigorously adhered to throughout. One is grey, the other white, both accentuating the play of light and shadow across the arcs created by the edges and surfaces. These paintings capture the highly concentrated language that permeates this veteran abstractionist’s works, with their very particular focus and attention. They are pristine, clean, elegant and yet playful in their relation to one another as well as the viewing subject – who undoubtedly find themselves caught somewhere between the sheer mirage-like floating opticality of colour, and the contrary persistent objecthood of the supports. The effect is one of slight disorientation – due to the extreme lightness of touch that Kelly brings to this dialogue. While other practitioners have dealt with these issues by experimenting with diverse materials – the industrial tropes of minimalism for instance – Kelly has fine-tuned the traditional elements of oil on canvas to an elemental poise, whereby they exhibit an astonishing malleability of constructive potential. What this actually constructs is a lucid articulation of site-responsiveness as a possibility. This is due to Kelly’s attentive awareness of a latent measure implicit in shape and colour, and the articulation of the whole architectural space itself. This is intuitive and felt, as he has explained, “I have never been interested in geometric measure. But to me measure, the French mesure – that’s intuitive.”
Kelly’s work occupies a unique place within modernist abstraction – while being clearly important and influential, it also is somehow too idiosyncratic to be wholly embraced by the canon. Greenberg remained patronising about the work’s achievement, and the attempts to assimilate his practice into a minimalist category has remained unconvincing. Essentially, Kelly’s perspective is one of French modernism that has been distilled by a quintessentially American eye. But, importantly, one that bypassed – and this is what makes his work so unique – abstract expressionism as a dominant cultural channel. From 1948-54 Kelly was resident in France, and therefore missed out on those tumultuous years of the New York scene, where the battleground in forging a new painting beyond late cubism and surrealism was fought. Kelly had his own contacts in France, both personal and artistic, in particular Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi, whose impact can still be felt somewhere within the work. Both these exemplars encouraged an approach to pairing down and paying attention to infinitesimal relations. Early works produced in France during this period explore the motif as a found object, preferably one already perceivably ‘flattened’, and ready to transcribe into an object – whether shadows, window frames, or architectural details. Other approaches at this time made use of chance operations to randomise these appropriated surfaces. From this, Kelly arrives at an abstraction that remains slowly deductive rather than simply reductive for its own sake; and he could speak of work that was deemed neither painting nor sculpture long before Donald Judd expressed this wish. It was, for him, a question of finding an ‘impersonal’ style – “Objects, unsigned, anonymous” - although this too might be seen as a French trait that Kelly has pursued to a new limit.
In the current exhibition, various groupings are collected as spaciously installed ensembles throughout the gallery. A new set of relief paintings return to the rectangle as primary unit, exploring rotated overlays of either horizontal or vertical panels. These have their origins in a small unassuming collage from 1955. This is typical of Kelly’s procedures, in that not only does the physicality of collage map out a projected literal space, but can also result in a long gestation period of assimilating moves and implications. As Rochelle Steiner points out in the accompanying catalogue, the actual physical and financial means of realizing this piece in large scale seemed a dim prospect at the time. However, here in the large room at the serpentine these realisations find their own pitch, and Yellow Relief over Red, 2004 and Red relief over Dark Blue, 2004 hover in the space – bringing attention to colour almost as a direct interruption of the room itself. With these relief works colour is only barely or provisionally fixed or contained by its physical form. Colour takes time, here, to settle itself within the physical structures that make it possible. Other works situate the rectangular panels flat and stacked, which create resonant colour bands – again a familiar motif from Kelly’s work from the 1950’s. Something might be said here about the colour itself: often synthetic looking it does have certain industrial overtones – rather like the colour of printing inks, with an acute sharpness to its timbre. Yet there is also a constancy between, say, a green used in one work and the next – but the mesure might well be contracted or expanded. A set of shaped panels, in sequence, Blue, Red, Green, Black, also of 2004 cooperate with the architecture in an almost off-kilter perspectival sense – reminiscent of the space of Siennese painting (another important source for Kelly). In the same room are some overtly sculptural pieces consisting of painted aluminium, a long streamlined wall mounted piece, Untitled 2003, and a free-standing vertical entitled Totem of 2004. Kelly’s sculptural pieces remain problematic, and once the entry into literal space becomes accentuated, their presence becomes too surrogate and figurative (Brancusi drifts too close to the surface), and what previously figured a creative lack in the work becomes too replete. But the best of this work here is a marvellous testament to slow moves in a continuous aesthetic evolution. Greenberg complained that Kelly’s work was “perhaps too easy” - missing that Matisse-like ability to approach simplicity and clarity without any air of portentousness.
Originally published in Art Monthly