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Kelly's green.

In 1992 I had an Ellsworth Kelly eureka! experience in Kassel, Germany, in a room, off discreetly to the side, in almost all senses apart from the rest of Documenta IX. Kelly has a reputation for being extremely exacting when it comes to the physical placement of his work - for the unimpeachable reason that walls are in essence the grounds of his paintings. Here, in his chambre a part at the Freidricianum, the dynamically curved, eccentrically positioned, single-color canvases instantly produced what can only be described as a "ping" effect: the sensation that would ensue if one suddenly came upon an alpine meadow, bright green and full of wildflowers, after wandering for hours through grand allees dripping with Spanish moss. Viewing Kelly's work at the time, I was reminded of Ruskin's pre-Raphaelite encomium: that artists endeavor to look at nature as if without eyelids. Since then, I have been unable to see a certain sunlit shade of pastoral green without thinking of Kelly.

Kelly, of course, has always been to some extent historically apart as well. Unlike most of his American contemporaries (but along with some others, such as Jack Youngerman, who went abroad on the GI bill shortly after the war), Kelly was living in Paris during the original tidal wave of Abstract Expressionism and only experienced its daunting aftermath when he returned to New York from a six-year sojourn abroad in 1954 - the year Jasper Johns was making his first "Flags." (Kelly and Youngerman both moved to lofts on Coenties Slip, in the fish market area, virtually next door to Agnes Martin and around the corner from Johns and Robert Rauschenberg on Pearl Street.) In Kelly's case "apart" does not mean immune to the impulses of his time. In particular, he seems to have been driven almost from the start by a kind of homegrown, post-Duchampian concretism: like Johns' paintings, Kelly's do not represent things but instead present themselves as things. (On a more quizzical note, Kelly and Johns also share an abiding fascination for Matthias Grunewald's phantasmagorical Isenheim altarpiece.)

Although Kelly, too, was swept into a generational current that pulled many young painters of the mid '50s away from expressive gesture toward a more impersonal touch and transcendental regard, what he did upon returning to America was a straightforward continuation of what he had been doing abroad: distilling, into pure shape and color, whatever fragment of a thing he had observed as he had observed it - whether the essential form of a plant or flower; the angle of a window from a particular vantage at a specific time of day; the exact perspective of the art of a bridge from where he stood; or, in the case of a painting such as Toilette, 1949, the inescapably basic shape of a Turkish toilet in a French cafe. (To this end photography was useful to him both as an exercise in its own right and as an aide memoire.) It is one of Kelly's temperamental peculiarities that, by the age of 30, he was for all purposes already fully formed as an artist. He has in any case been uniquely consistent, both stylistically and conceptually, ever since. (In this respect, as well as in that of a perennial freshness of surface, he has something in common with Roy Lichtenstein.)

In addition to Kelly's long-standing Ruskinian mission, however, there is the equally if not more important matter of what he has looked at most intensely, and of what has shaped his work within the realms of architecture and art. The artist's formative interest in Byzantine and Egyptian sculpture and Romanesque architecture, as well as an early and enduring involvement with work by many of the great European Moderns who were still alive at midcentury, cannot be overemphasized. When he lived in France, Kelly visited the studios of Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi. Arp's sublimated naturalism, and the exquisite tension of Brancusi's soaring line surely informed Kelly's Shaker-plain botanical allusions and his tensile, streamlined sculptures. A connection between Matisse's late cutouts and Kelly's brilliant, single-color shaped canvases needs no justification. In the versatile and formally ecumenical Alexander Calder - whose subtle impact on younger artists, ranging from Kelly and Youngerman to the late Keith Haring, has become increasingly apparent over the last two decades - Kelly also found a powerful supporter when he needed one.

Kelly's own effect, in turn, on subsequent generations seems to be emerging as well. The simultaneous abstraction and literalism of his canvases finds recent parallels in the paintings of Peter Halley, Andy Spence, Philip Taaffe, and (via Robert Indiana) Christopher Wool. (Taaffe's elaborately layered surfaces may also to some degree be indebted to Kelly's early use of varied collage and tracing techniques.) His Yankee plainspokenness and his deployment (particularly during the '40s and early '50s) of found elements such as children's drawings find an echo in Donald Baechler's etiolated accumulations of similar stuff. And, finally, Byron Kim's randomly arranged, multipanel, skin-toned color grids are nothing if not the direct descendants of Kelly's great aleatory geometric arrangements such as his Sixty-Four Panels: Colors for a Large Wall, 1951.

"Ellsworth Kelly" is on view at the Guggenheim from 18 October to 15 January 1997, travels to LA MOCA from 16 February to 18 May 1997, and then to the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, from 12 June to 7 September 1997.

Lisa Liebmann is the author of David Salle (Rizzoli, 1994).
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Title Annotation:Kelly Read; painter Ellsworth Kelly
Author:Liebmann, Lisa
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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