Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923). "Sculpture for a Large Wall," 1956–1957. Anodized aluminum, 104 panels, 136 x 782 1/2 x 12 in. (345.4 x 1987.6 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, 1998. Copyright Ellsworth Kelly. Photo courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. (Photo courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; Copyright Ellsworth Kelly; Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

A small but handsome exhibition of work by Ellsworth Kelly is billed as the Barnes Foundation’s “first show of contemporary art in ninety years.” That’s another way of saying it is the first time the Barnes, founded in 1922, has ever devoted a gallery to work by a living artist, and a coy way of reminding the public that the museum, now resident in an elegant new building in downtown Philadelphia, is finally breaking the worst of the intellectual fetters in which it has languished for too many decades.

When its new building opened last spring, the new Barnes included all of the old Barnes (a meticulously arranged private collection that was originally housed in a historic building in the Philadelphia suburbs) carefully reproduced in rooms that duplicate the scale, layout and flow of the founder’s original vision. But it also included a large open gallery which was initially used for a temporary exhibition about the Barnes’s institutional history.

That space has now been turned over to a temporary exhibition of work by Kelly, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on May 31. There’s been a lot of attention to Kelly this year (the National Gallery of Art is showing a works on paper exhibition, there are major shows at private galleries in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art is showcasing some of the best of its impressive Kelly holdings) and yet more to come (including an exhibition of recent paintings at the Phillips Collection, which opens June 22). So it would be easy for the Barnes’s show to blend into the general celebrations.

But it doesn’t. “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall,” which opened May 4, is anchored by one magnificent, large-scaled, mid-century piece. It juxtaposes Kelly at his most creatively formidable with more recent works, which have achieved a serene and often chilly detachment from the world. Taking advantage of the long, rectangular gallery space, the exhibition is dominated by the 1956-57 “Sculpture for a Large Wall,” made of 104 anodized aluminum panels, some of them colored red, blue, yellow and black, arrayed in four long rows each measuring 65 feet.

The work was originally designed for the Philadelphia Transportation Building, a bland, mid-century structure that served as a transportation hub for the city’s downtown. Kelly, who had returned from an extended stay in France in 1954, was asked to contribute metal screens for a restaurant in the building, and his proposal for them was so well received that he was then asked to create what would be his largest work to date, a lobby sculpture that would enliven an awkward, shallow but long public space.

Ellsworth Kelly (American, born 1923), "Red Curve." 1986. Painted aluminum, 120" x 204" x 1/2" (304.8 x 518.2 x 1.3 cm). Copyright Ellsworth Kelly. (Copyright Ellsworth Kelly)

The restaurant screens were lost in the 1960s, but the lobby sculpture, now recognized as a seminal early work, survived and was purchased in 1998 and removed to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Its return to Philadelphia is bittersweet, a reminder of an ugly chapter in downtown redevelopment, of lost work, of Philadelphia‘s neglect of what was its first work abstract public sculpture — yet a happy return nonetheless and a smart way for the Barnes to dip its toe into the art of our own time.

It is important for many reasons, not least of which is its beauty. The panels are irregularly shaped variations on the parallelogram, some with one or two curving sides and others like slanted trapezoids. It suggests a code or alphabet of some sort, updated for the early computer age, in which all the world’s problems were being re-formatted into binary bits of on and off, open and closed, zero and one. The colors, appearing occasionally on certain panels, add to the sense of some kind of mysterious linguistic underpinning, like tonal cues or keys to inflection.

The sculpture also crystallized several of Kelly’s preoccupations, prefiguring work that he is still doing today. Kelly used chance procedures to determine its basic form, which achieved his ideal of a wall-sized, hieroglyphic billboard. Kelly was working in opposition to a perverse but then prevalent critique of art: That the world had no more need of painters who expressed a personal vision in a contained, framed, aestheticized object that hung on the wall and was exchanged like a commodity. Here was a sculpture that broke so many of the rules supposedly governing this straw-man understanding of the past: It hung on the wall, but pushed out from it like a sculpture; it was seemingly boundless, with no discrete center or focus; it wasn’t a picture of anything, but a blunt, bold, hypnotic confrontation with the eye; and it eliminated most or all traces of the hand of the artist, using industrial materials, presented with a pristine, depersonalized polish.

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.

Ellsworth Kelly: 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.