“The Cerebral and The Sublime: Focus on Ellsworth Kelly”
by Stephan Fowlkes
Ever since the departure from purely representational methods of creation and creativity (sculpture, painting and drawing, even photography) there has been a struggle--or at least an active dialogue--between the intellectual and emotional properties of a work of art. This has affected the way we look at art, perceive art, interpret art, define art, accept the breadth of the parameters of what art can be. Anything can be art, given the right explanation...a furry tea cup, a 6 oz. can of artist’s feces, a monochromatic blue canvas, some bee pollen on the floor, a shark in formaldehyde, silver mylar balloons, entire buildings and bridges wrapped in fabric, a single florescent light in a corner, walls covered in porcelain clay, a snow shovel.* We have come to embrace all of these as perfectly acceptable artistic expressions, and they have comfortably settled into the annals of art history as valid and successful works of art. We’ve certainly come a long way in the past century, in terms of how we look at things. A century ago, a snow shovel was a snow shovel; now it represents the advent of the ready-made and the found object. Fifty years ago, a florescent light and fixture cost less than five bucks; today the same fixture and light can be worth hundreds of thousands--crazy, isn’t it? Or is it? Can it be that we have expanded our collective consciousness to embrace such abstract notions and concepts as to be able to see beyond simple visual aesthetics, assumptions, and the monetary value of the materials incorporated? Yet, is this perception universal or is it something that is gained through immersion? Can the uninitiated appreciate a Pollock as much as those with a firm grasp on art history and theory? In some ways, these new aesthetic sensibilities are based on a certain degree of visual literacy. Often, there is the comment “I could do that, why is that art?” when viewing quite a bit of contemporary and modern art: if you know nothing about art and you look at a canvas with a bunch of different colored polka-dots arranged in a grid, is the experience the same--as sublime--as that of the patron who pays a million dollars for it? And is “It’s a Damien Hirst” a satisfactory response to justify its value? Does that make it worth a million dollars? One may argue the same of a Picasso. Since we are still in the world of the visual arts I suspect what the thing looks like should still play some role in the piece. So, if you’re not a fan of polka-dots, the Hirst painting probably isn’t worth squat to you. But to the polka-dot lovers out there, it doesn’t get much better than this. Top shelf, blue chip polka-dots.
With this in mind, Ellsworth Kelly’s new body of paintings, “Diagonal,” at Matthew Marks challenge these issues, whether it is Kelly’s intention or not. The show presents the viewer with a series of two-canvas paintings, one square or rectangular, with a slightly longer, diagonally super-imposed canvas of another color on top. The canvases are all monochromatic: two white on black, two black on white, a red on white, an orange on white, a blue on white, and a yellow on white. Nowhere is the artist’s hand or mark evident, these works are pristine, formal, elegant. Yet to the uninitiated, they are simply blank, colored canvases, in theory, something anyone could do. With no prior knowledge of Kelly’s history and his oeuvre, it must be difficult to fully appreciate these works, and what they represent. Even Kelly, in the catalogue essay alludes to these works as a sort of swan song; “these works are going to be extremely difficult to follow,” he told Johanna Burton, who wrote the essay for the catalogue. In some ways, these paintings successfully encapsulate all the concerns he has addressed with his work over the past five decades. Monochromatic canvases are nothing new for Kelly: his 64 small canvases arranged in a grid, “Colors for a Large Wall” (1951), are all monochromatic black, white or colored, and here almost sixty years later, he has not exhausted this investigation.
I would argue the validity of this work comes from the serious and passionate investigation Kelly has pursued for over a half century. This is vastly different from, say, Joe Bradley, who paints monochromatic canvases which he installs in groups on the wall, reminding me of Lego pieces stacked. What apparently got him (Bradley) into the Whitney Biennial this past year--I presume-- is the novelty factor. These did not come from a fifty year investigation, not even twenty years, as the artist is only 33 years old. It is clear that novelty plays a large role in contemporary and emerging art these days, as the “new” is always a hot commodity. And this is where the crux lies: put Kelly’s “Untitled” (2007) comprised of four independently hung canvases of different sizes (green, blue, black, and red) next to Joe Bradley’s “Untitled” (2006) comprised of a small blue canvas sitting atop a yellow rectangle which sits on two vertical rectangles, white and pink. For some reason, I see Kelly’s work as sublime and successful, carrying a certain undefined logic, whereas Bradley’s piece seems a failed sophomoric joke in comparison. I am sure many would argue with me on this point.
But for people outside the art world, would there be any noticeable difference? Both are works with four monochromatic canvases...how different can they be? This is where context is paramount...to understand the work, the artist’s intentions, and the course that led the artist to this point, even the context in art history. Kelly’s first monochromatic canvases came well before Frank Stella claimed “what you see is what you see.” Besides Malevich, he was one of the first to paint monochromatic canvases, and this was radical at the time. Now, more than fifty years later, for a young artist to assume command over this formal aesthetic as his personal vocabulary lacks substance. Sure, the arrangement factor may be novel, but in no way does Bradley’s work even come close to the realm where Kelly’s work dwells.
Kelly’s formal investigations into the diagonal and the dialogue between the paired canvases--not to mention the shadows they cast on the wall--as intellectually based as they may be, still manage to instill a profound sense of the sublime. There is something extremely seductive to the relationship, the tension between the canvases. This only comes about when the artist is fully in command of his aesthetic vocabulary and his intentions. In their harsh, even cold, geometry, the paintings still manage to evoke a deep emotional response. There is nothing incidental about these works; the intentionality is clearly evident in the shapes of the canvases, their placement one on the other, as well as the interaction elicited.
If Kelly never painted again, these works would successfully complete the journey he started almost sixty years ago. They are mature, confident, and hold their own beautifully. Like the Haiku, less is often more, and these works offer plenty of room for both the intellectual and the sublime properties to romp freely. Open your eyes, your mind and your soul, and you will walk away fulfilled.
And right next door, be sure to check out his drawings and collages from 1954-1962. These are far more personal, intimate, and a wonderful juxtaposition to the paintings, while still informative, regarding his creative evolution. Some are even the sketches preceding some of his familiar paintings such as “Black Forms” (1955), a collage with ink and graphite on paper.
* Meret Oppenheim (“Object,” 1936), Piero Manzoni (“Merde d’Artista,” 1961), Yves Klein (“IKB 79,” 1959), Wolfgang Laib (“Pollen Square,” 1991), Damien Hirst (“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” 1991), Andy Warhol (“Room filled with mylar balloons,”1966), Christo (“Wrapped Reischtag,” 1971-1995 and “Wrapped Pont Neuf,” 1975-1985), Dan Flavin (“pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns),” 1963), Andy Goldsworthy (“White Walls,” 2007), Marcel Duchamp (“In Advance of a Broken Arm,” 1915).