Like many artists in the middle of the last century, Kelly had a powerful sense of what art shouldn’t do, and he made great work in response to a slightly blinkered, ideological sense of what defines bad or outdated art. Which is to say that he participated in a long and fruitful history of working in opposition to a basic misreading of his artistic patrimony.
It was a smart choice for the Barnes to present this work, and the later ones that complement it, as the museum’s first foray into contemporary work. But one wishes that the Barnes would accept the obvious: That Kelly’s art stands in stark opposition to the Barnes’s main collection, that “Sculpture for a Large Wall” is quietly screaming at the fussiness, clutter and egotism on display in the mausoleum rooms that present Albert Barnes’s late 19th- and early 20th-century collection just as the cranky old man laid them out so long ago.
There’s a lot to love in the main Barnes’s collection, but Kelly’s work takes on new vigor when seen in argument with the small frames, tightly focused arrangements and visual cacophony of Barnes’s bizarre too-muchness of besotted art collecting.
There was no need to stress a tenuous connection between what Kelly was doing and what Barnes did: “Like Kelly, Barnes found infinite formal possibilities in the wall — his field of creativity.” That seems to mean that we should credit Barnes, the wealthy collector, with some kind of abstract, formalist vision in his decisions about how to hang other people’s paintings, a vision that is somehow akin to Kelly’s rigorous, minimalist, reductionist, industrial condensation of the world.
Which is piffle. But harmless piffle, given the substantial pleasure of seeing “Sculpture for a Large Wall” back in Philadelphia, in close proximity with works from 1986 to 2012. These later works, including the 2012 “Two Curves,” a hermetically sealed, white painted-aluminum piece that feels like some kind of space-age coffin, remind us of the danger of the vision Kelly was and is still pursuing. Depersonalizing art, taken to extremes, removes not just the ego of the artist, but the humanity, too, leaving us with industrial fetish objects. They are beautiful, resistant, very expensive and easily exchanged, becoming three-dimensional logos with nothing inside them.
Seeing the more recent Kelly pieces next to the mid-century wall sculpture leaves you with a frustrating sense that Kelly’s later, signature work needs to be cracked open, that it lacks the open and permeable play of visual delight in “Sculpture for a Large Wall,” which is full of shadows, undulations of form, and small variations in the hue and sheen of its panels. Kelly, in argument with the basic ethos of Barnes’s vision, has long since achieved his ideal, which may send you back into the old Barnes ready to engage yet again with its delicious hodgepodge of old-fashioned picture-making.
Sculpture on the Wall
is on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through Sept. 2. For more information, including admission fees, visit www.barnesfoundation.org.