Art review: ‘Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009’


“Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009” includes seven examples of the 90-year-old painter’s geometric abstractions. (Photo by Jerry L. Thompson)
August 1, 2013

Ellsworth Kelly, who turned 90 in May, probably deserves a big sheet cake — that is, a giant retrospective — somewhere. But he’ll have to settle for something smaller. A handful of tiny, cupcake-like shows — from Washington to New York — are celebrating the work of the abstract artist. Along with the National Gallery of Art’s tightly focused “Ellsworth Kelly: Colored Paper Images,” there are modest showcases of Kelly’s art at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation and at the Museum of Modern Art.

The sweetest of these little confections may be the two-gallery exhibition that the Phillips Collection has put together. A mere seven pieces — each of which gets its own wall — “Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009” is a fitting celebration of an artist who’s known for cleanly minimalist geometric abstraction. The work is restrained, austere even. And yet it sings.

If you’re looking for lyricism, however, this isn’t for you. The works in the show, at first blush, feel almost machine-made. Painted in monochromatic industrial colors, the surfaces are featureless, as if painted by a robot. There isn’t a single visible brush stroke among them.

Kelly’s art has never been about surface, or pictorialism, but rather form and color, boiled down to their essence. One piece, “Green Blue Black Red,” consists of four rectangular panels, in the aforementioned hues, hung left to right, in irregular sizes. The green rectangle sits with a horizontal orientation; the others are vertical. They aren’t like windows. There are no grand, painterly gestures. There isn’t even content.

They’re more like colorful pieces of painted sheet metal, hanging on the wall to dry before someone comes along to weld them together into a boxy appliance.

Like all the work in the show — indeed, like most of Kelly’s art — “Green Blue Black Red” isn’t meant to be experienced intellectually or emotionally but rather purely visually. It short-circuits two of the primary ways we are used to digesting art — through the brain or through the heart — leaving only the eyes. (Anyone interested in Kelly’s softer side would do well to check out the National Gallery’s show, which also features geometric works but on handmade paper and with deliberately imprecise, bleeding edges of color.)

Almost all the other Kelly works at the Phillips feature two stacked panels, one superimposed on top of the other: white on black, black on white, yellow on red, purple on white and red on white. They’re like sandwiches, where the top slice of bread is of a completely different size and color than the one on the bottom, creating a mismatched set.

More sculpture than painting, these works show Kelly at his best, creating subtly arresting forms that evoke both architecture and nature. Only one work, “Purple Curve in Relief,” features anything other than a straight line. Yet with its gentle, almost imperceptible arc, the show’s most delicate object also is its most powerful.

That pull takes some time to feel. This isn’t love at first sight. It’s all too easy to walk into “Panel Paintings” and walk right out again, dismissing the work as cold and uncompelling.

Give the little show a chance, though, and it may start to grow on you. Not because it stimulates the mind or stirs the heart, but because it feeds the eye.

That’s reward enough.

The Story Behind the Work

Ellsworth Kelly’s connection to the Phillips Collection was cemented in 2006, when the museum commissioned the artist to create a permanent, site-specific bronze sculpture for its courtyard. Hanging on the far wall, across from the museum’s Tryst cafe, Kelly’s untitled sculpture looks, at first glance, like a shaped black canvas. Looking at it from a distance flattens it, creating the appearance of a carbon-steel knife blade, flat on one side with a scimitar-like cutting edge on the other.

Come closer, and you’ll notice that the piece is actually folded in two, like a leaf that has just fallen off a tree and is caught in midair. That balance, or contradiction, is a hallmark of the artist’s work, much of which floats in the space between nature and manufacture.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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