Before Ellsworth Kelly died of natural causes at the age of 92, he was busy planning a late-career comeback. Not that he went anywhere—as a forefather of minimalist abstraction, his paintings are an omnipresent staple of museum collections around the world. This comeback was more of a reclamation, a chance for Kelly to redefine himself in his own terms, instead of the frequent mislabeling of his work as starkly minimalist. The first component of Kelly’s comeback was an exhibition of his photography, which had been largely unseen by the public. Presented only months after his December 2015 death, the photography exhibition was a wonderfully eccentric and surprising coda for the artist; it was a testament to Kelly’s roots in the geometries of the natural world, and his disposition for careful, slow looking.
As with the photography exhibition, Matthew Marks Gallery now hopes to revive conversations about Kelly’s late career with Ellsworth Kelly: Last Paintings, a muted eulogy of sorts that celebrates the artist’s idiosyncratic vision of abstracted nature. Kelly’s late paintings are a testament to the infinite permutations an artist can make within his recognized canon. There is an effort here to go beyond Kelly’s established vocabulary of colors and shapes, splashing his ideas onto the gallery walls in subtle, quiet ways.
Ellsworth Kelly, Diptych: Green Blue , 2015, Oil on canvas, two panels , Overall: 80 x 114 1/2 inches . © Ellsworth Kelly. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Speaking to the New York Times ahead of the exhibition, Kelly’s partner of 32 years, Jack Shear, remarked how “Ellsworth [liked] to play games with vision more than anything.” In Last Paintings, visions become revisions—a few works on view revisit the artist’s earlier paintings as points of departure. For example, Diptych: Green Blue (2015) evokes Green Blue Red (1963), but nixes the latter’s red background. Knowing what it lacks, Diptych: Green Blue subsequently merges with its background, the wall, as an extension of its canvas. Like an organism that adapts to its surroundings, Kelly’s latest edits make his old work lighter, freeing it from the picture plane’s grid and into the viewer’s environment. Only one other work in the exhibition directly deals with Kelly’s trademark suite of colors. Blue Black Red (2015) is another callback; this one reaches even farther back into history, evoking the collage Study for Four Color Panels (1954). Again, Kelly dissolves the latter’s white background in his revision.
Ellsworth Kelly, White Diagonal Curve, 2015 , Oil on canvas , 51 1/2 x 120 inches . © Ellsworth Kelly. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Such a strategy is most salient in Kelly’s White Diagonal Curve (2015) in the gallery’s second room. This piece revisits one of Kelly’s signature shapes, an arc that may evoke the distant horizon over some large expansive view. Yet here, the curve vanishes—as any white monochrome would—into the gallery’s white walls. Through this monochrome, we see Kelly’s continued reliance on the specific architecture and aesthetics of the gallery space. For him, the white cube can be more than a dissociated non-place of art; it can be a laboratory for his optical experiments.
What’s most striking about Kelly’s final paintings is the mordant ethos emanating from the four black-and-white paintings within the gallery. Comprising half of the exhibition, these paintings have a strong formal appeal that encapsulates Kelly’s visual interest in the ambiguities between foreground and background, movement and stagnancy. In the standout White Angle Over Black (2015) we even see Kelly again playing with the visual sameness of white wall and canvas, allowing his angle to soar between the two planes like the bird it takes its form from.
Ellsworth Kelly, White Angle Over Black, 2015 , Oil on canvas, two joined panels, 78 x 47 3/8 inches . © Ellsworth Kelly. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
But there is something more than formal intrigue in these black-and-white paintings; there is a sense of lateness that surrounds them. Lateness, that memento mori of a word, can describe art as a function of the artist’s age. As art lovers, we harbor an undeniable zeal for work that brushes with death. Our cultic curiosity allows us to reconstitute Kelly’s black-and-white paintings as signals of an imminent demise. But late style is not just a fan’s machination: looking at Kelly’s work, we can parse a few common components of late style. We see the artist playing with fragments of his past oeuvre for sources of innovation. Kelly’s last paintings show an artist turning inward—a stark contrast to the man known for sourcing his abstract shapes from the natural world. Kelly’s final paintings show an artist who was once again on the edge of brilliance and madness. He was willing to dissolve his beautiful canvases into the gallery walls, dissolve the shapes he had so carefully crafted over a seven-decade career. Working until the day he died, Kelly sought the absolution of nirvana in his disintegrating canvases; he sought a beautiful dismantling of conventions, even as his life came to a close.
Ellsworth Kelly: Last Paintings runs from May 5–June 24, 2017, at Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 W. 22nd Street.
Zachary Small is a New York-based genderqueer writer. He’s written for many publications including Hyperallergic, BOMB Magazine, Artinfo Magazine, and HowlRound. He was recently named the 2017 recipient of the CUE Foundation’s Young Art Critic Mentorship Program. His latest play, /VANITAS/ debuted at Dixon Place. He tweets from @ZSmall93 and can be reached at zsmall93[at]gmail[dot]com.
(Image at top: Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Black Red, 2015, Oil on canvas, three joined panels, 73 5/8 x 131 inches . © Ellsworth Kelly. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery )