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Los Angeles
Ellsworth Kelly
Matthew Marks Gallery, North Orange Grove
1062 North Orange Grove , Los Angeles 90046
January 20, 2012 - April 7, 2012

Fulsome, Familiar, And As Ever, Brazen
by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

What would it be like to see an Ellsworth Kelly, any Ellsworth Kelly abstraction for the first time? I try to imagine…mostly muteness, blankness, brightness, largeness. I try but it’s hard to know. Maybe I mean it’s hard to remember back to the first encounter because there is so much familiarity built into viewing Kelly’s work. In fact, familiarity and its shades of offness have often seemed to me to be employed as a complex force and mined as a hotspot of thinking in his shapes—part of his genius. Granted, familiarity may not have been the sign under which Kelly’s boldness entered the world. But it is a trait his work quickly and permanently acquired. For so long (from the beginning?), a powerful, even stunning sense of inevitability has hovered over my reception of his stripped-down, brazen abstractions. They settle into vision and memory with a heavy, content fullness and inevitability in a way reminiscent of Matisse—a perfected, unfussy balance of elements displaying elegance and apparent ease. (And I’m not even talking about his amazing plant drawings.)

The five new double-panel relief paintings in the artist’s current show, inaugurating Matthew Marks’ new Los Angeles gallery (by architect Peter Zellner), have Kelly’s characteristic graphic-ness, understatement, clarity, confidence, subtlety, terseness, efficiency, self-sufficiency, simplicity, refinement, optical sizzle, matte electricity, and poise.

Installation shot of Ellsworth Kelly: Los Angeles at Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo © Joshua White / courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

There is Blue Relief with Black, 2011: A dark cobalt sideways parabola bulging pregnantly from the left side of the painting as a shaped monochrome stacked in front of a black background panel. The bulge is not centered vertically; its weight is pulled by gravity, making an exaggerated, double-D kind of silhouette, like the bust of Strega Nona’s profile. If the blue relief shape swells and curves like a breast or pregnant belly, then it swells and curves like protuberances in general and speaks to the push-pull, positive-negative flip-flopping of concave and convex spaces that nest and fit around each other. The shapes spoon. Color spoons. Space pops in and out. Orange Relief with Blue, 2011: The pregnant bulge has flipped over its X-axis, in other words it is flipped upside down. The proportions are different and so is the color blue, which is much lighter and brighter here and pushed back to the background. A third shade of blue, just as tropical or primary but some tints darker, fills the skyground of Green Relief with Blue, 2011. The composite shape of Black Relief with White, 2011, is an irregular, downward-pointing triangle. The upward lift of Yellow Relief with White, 2011, resembles the levity and buoyancy of a balloon, while its colors resemble the concentric contrast of a fried egg, interjecting in one fell swoop the everyday, the body, and its desires into the chromatic purity of this graphic geometry.

But again, I ask myself, what would it be like to see an Ellsworth Kelly for the first time? I’ve decided that it might be quite a bit like the thrill I get seeing the remarkable street-front façade Kelly designed for the new gallery. Calling for a simple black stripe to run horizontally along the top edge of the building’s white square (or near-square) face, it is the first architectural work by the artist that I am aware of. It feels like a significant discovery. Enlarged to an urban scale and extruded into habitable space, the façade opens up a lot that is already present, if compressed in Kelly’s practice. It clearly corresponds to a delicate group of three small collages and studies on paper dating back to 1952 for a 1966 painting, Black Over White, comprised of two conjoined monochromatic panels forming the same, austere configuration of a heavy black lid over a white expanse. These four closely aligned works occupy the smaller, second room of the gallery and track a deep historical context in which to place the façade’s design. At what point did this early composition become envisioned as a building? Was that possibility always inscribed in it, latent somehow? Is building-size the next logical shift in scale for Kelly’s large wall works to take, turning Black Over White into an early study of its own the way the collages are studies for the painting?

Installation shot of Ellsworth Kelly: Los Angeles at Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo © Joshua White / courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Translated into architecture, the composition’s two solid shapes of color get set against each other, stacked in space as two parallel but distinct planes the way Kelly’s new relief paintings conjoin two panels stacked in front of, or on top of, each other. So the big, thick, heavy black slab floats in relief against the white stucco front of the building, which makes me wonder how can we delimit the physical extent of Kelly’s intervention and how would variations in that delimiting effect the implications of the gesture: is the work restricted to the black bar alone? Or does it include the scheme’s white space below as well, which is coterminous with the building’s skin that wraps around the entire architectural volume? Does it include or accommodate the tall, narrow glass door entry puncturing the white stucco field? Does it include or accommodate the slight angle of the sidewalk, tweaking in a subtle but powerful way the squareness and parallel logic of the design? Does it include the electrical wires which are absent, unseen, having been removed and buried underground in order to clear the public viewing space in front? The efficient placement of the black bar at top effectively transforms the entire edifice into something else, something new and moved and moving that exploits Archimedes’ principle of leverage: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

I see Kelly’s façade every morning. I do yoga a block away. The studio’s east-facing windows look directly at it, and from the distance of my mat its tallness and monumentality is shrunk down into a small, compact patch within my visual field—shrunk down and installed in the cityscape much like a painting on a wall.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer


(Top Image: Elsworth Kelly, Green Relief with Blue (installation view), 2011, Oil on canvas, two panels. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles; Photo © Joshua White)

Posted by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer on 2/28/12 | tags: architecture painting

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