Tall, lean, animated and gregarious, Ellsworth Kelly seems far too actively engaged with his work to be one of the art world’s most illustrious fixtures. Artists who have arrived at that position are expected to sit still and hold court. But, at 73--with a 50-year career behind him and a retrospective exhibition of his work opening next Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art--Kelly is more likely to be involved with his next big project.
The first engagement of this traveling retrospective, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, was a major art world event and a landmark of his career. But Kelly didn’t stick around for the duration. Soon after the mid-October opening, he was forging ahead. On a recent visit to Southern California, he wasn’t finalizing MOCA’s scaled-down version of the Guggenheim’s enormous show, as might have been expected. He was working on three big commissions at Peter Carlson Enterprises in Sun Valley, a firm that fabricates many of his monumental pieces.
“It looks so simple,” Kelly said, strolling into Carlson’s plant and surveying “The Red and the Black,” a massive new work that had just been finished. “But what it took to make it that way.”
“The Red and the Black"--commissioned for the Tokyo International Forum, a new convention center and performing arts complex designed by New York-based architect Rafael Vin~oly--consists of two irregular rectangular aluminum panels. Measuring roughly 20 by 10 feet each, one section is bright red, the other black. The panels appear solid, but they actually consist of sheet metal laminated to a honeycomb matrix, using technology developed for the aircraft industry. Pipes and threaded connectors attached to the back sides serve as handles for technicians who carry and install the 700-pound panels.
Kelly marveled about the meticulous effort required to fabricate, move and install his work and to guard against damaging its pristine surfaces. But what he really loves about “The Red and the Black” is the alluring color of the red panel. A catalog essay for his retrospective recounts an experience on a hot summer day in 1959 when Kelly was so thrilled with the red of a recently completed painting that he took off his clothes and improvised a dance in the nude.
“I feel the same about this red,” he said, holding his arms high and spinning around--fully dressed in cords, a dark wool blazer and loafers.
He is also excited about a huge project for Boston’s new Federal Courthouse, expected to open late next year. Designed by architect Henry Cobb, the building is a cylindrical structure with two arms extending from the center in a V shape. Kelly has planned 21 solid color panels for the building, including a blue one that Carlson has finished. The nine largest panels will be installed--three across and three deep--in the 45-foot-high rotunda; the 12 remaining panels will fan out in the corridors.
The third commission was designed for the Guggenheim’s auditorium. This latest in a series of totemic sculptures is a three-sided steel panel with two sides meeting at a right angle and connecting to a curve at their opposite ends. The straight vertical side will be attached to the auditorium’s curved wall so that the piece projects about 14 inches into the room.
“This is where I am,” Kelly said of the works at Carlson. The art in the retrospective is history, he said. But without the track record on view in the show, he probably wouldn’t have won such major commissions. And taking a long view at his past work is an illuminating experience both for him and his audience.
“Finally I’m able to see what I’ve done,” he said. “I hadn’t seen some of this work for years. [After looking at it] I feel that I go from a couple of steps forward to one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. I use what I have done as a springboard.”
Kelly is known for merging form and color in objects that react to the space around them. At first glance, his trademark paintings and sculptures seem to be the simplest form of abstraction. Bold, solid colors. Perfectly smooth surfaces. Crisp shapes. Large scale. Nice--but so familiar they tend to be taken for granted.
Yet his work actually encompasses such diverse items as a black-and-white painting based on flickering light on the Seine, gridded paintings with squares of color arranged by chance, weathered steel panels, floor pieces, multi-panel paintings, contour drawings of leaves and collages on postcards.
Indeed, pinning down Kelly’s work can be surprisingly tricky. Often considered a precursor to the Minimalists, he is far too romantic and passionately involved with color to share their stark, geometric aesthetic. He is emotionally closer to the Abstract Expressionists and their descendants, but his work bears no physical resemblance to their gestural painting.
Kelly’s work looks nothing like Pop art either, but one of the least known aspects of his art is that it shares Pop’s use of real-life sources. Not the comic book characters, soup cans, flags and targets, of course. What captures Kelly’s interest are windows and doorways, shadows on a stairway, a stack of bricks, the curve of a snow-covered hill. He never translates them literally--and often doesn’t even draw or photograph them until after he has completed a painting, as a sort of documentary record--but his work doesn’t come out of thin air.
“I don’t invent,” he said. “It’s not about my signature. It’s something about perception. My eye picks up things in nature; I’m interested in the whole thread of what you look at.”
The process is a continuing challenge, he said:
“I always feel I have to do something new. It has to hit me as something I haven’t seen before, and that gets harder as I get older. But I’m not searching for something. I just find it. The idea has to come to me. I find myself in nature--the roof of a building or a shadow, something that has the magic of life, fragments I can take out and build on.”
All visual artists depend upon their eyes, but Kelly seems to have a special relationship with his.
“I have trained my eye to play with images,” he said. “My eye is like a dictator for me. I don’t understand it, but it rules me. And it always surprises me. I might do a lot of curves, put them out and look at them. My eye tells me the one to use.”
The artist’s distinctive work filled the central spiral exhibition space and several adjacent galleries at the Guggenheim in a spectacular presentation. From different vantage points along the curved ramp, visitors could see a changing array of relationships between his early and later pieces. Extensive displays of photographs and works on paper provided insight into his creative process without suggesting that his artwork is directly derived from nature or the man-made environment.
MOCA’s show will be quite different. Containing about 40 paintings and three sculptures--compared to more than 250 pieces at the Guggenheim--the Los Angeles exhibition will be devoted to major works. Those who want a more complete picture of Kelly must consult the hefty, liberally illustrated catalog.
Despite obvious losses, Kelly said he is pleased with the stripped-down traveling exhibition, which reflects exorbitant shipping costs and the difficulties of securing long-term loans. “I’m very satisfied with the MOCA show,” he said. “It will be as strong, in a different way.”
As at the Guggenheim, he has tried to create visual “poetry” in the installation by putting “the right work in the right place,” he said. The first gallery will set the tone with large, mature pieces. The second will contain early pictures. In the long south gallery, where the bulk of the work will be installed, visitors will follow the evolution of his career while passing through seven rooms. “I like working with square rooms, with each picture on a wall,” Kelly said.
After closing in Los Angeles on May 18, the exhibition will appear at the Tate Gallery in London from June 12 to Sept. 7 and the Haus der Kunst in Munich at undesignated dates in late fall and winter.
Kelly was born in 1923 in Newburgh, N.Y. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was 6 months old and, six years later, to Oradell, N.J., where Kelly’s father became an insurance company executive. Apparently destined to be an artist, Kelly started painting in elementary school and was listed as Oradell Junior High School’s “best artist” in the 1938 yearbook.
He began his formal study of art in 1941 at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn but was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943. During his military service, Kelly gained a bit of art experience making silk-screen posters for training programs and learning camouflage techniques. Sent to France after the Allied invasion of Normandy, he kept sketchbooks and got his first look at Paris.
In 1946, after his military discharge, Kelly enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he was smitten by art from opposite ends of the historic and stylistic spectrum. He was attracted to the formally circumscribed, religious-themed works of Byzantine and Romanesque artists as well as German Expressionist Max Beckmann’s brooding paintings, which expose the pain of human weakness. On frequent trips to New York, Kelly also became acquainted with the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. But like many of his contemporaries, he was enthralled with Paris, which had been the capital of the Western art world before the war. In 1948, after his graduation at Boston, he returned to France to study art with funds provided by the GI Bill of Rights.
Kelly stayed in Paris for six years--until the money ran out--and it was a crucial period in his development. Both attracted to and repelled by the Modernist giants he met, he tried to avoid working in the shadow of Picasso but was inspired by Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp.
“Picasso was the dominant figure in Paris,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a 10th-rate Picasso. I didn’t want to make art with a signature, like Goya, Rembrandt or even Monet. I didn’t want my personality or technique to dominate my work. I wanted my paintings to be anonymous. I liked the idea of doing something that people couldn’t tell who did it.
“Of course I can’t really do that,” he said, “but I don’t want to deal with my personal life in my art. It should have a clarity and magic to it. My work doesn’t have loaded subject matter; it’s not about politics or sex. My subject matter is something that’s always been there.” Once he identified the territory he wanted to explore, it seemed wide open. “I felt that I could do anything I wanted, but my eye had to tell me it was sufficient in some way,” he said.
His Paris-based years were crammed with travel, museum visits, contacts with major figures in the arts and formative aesthetic experiences. The period was documented in “Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948-1954,” an international traveling exhibition organized in 1992 at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris.
When he moved to New York in 1954, Kelly was out of sync with the Abstract Expressionists. But he soon made connections, staging his first U.S. solo exhibition in 1956 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, an influential New York show space. About the same time he began living on Coenties Slip, an old dock in lower Manhattan, with painters Agnes Martin and Jack Youngerman.
Since then, Kelly has had dozens of exhibitions in major museums and galleries and executed a daunting list of commissions as he has moved from one aesthetic format to another. He currently lives and works in the Hudson River Valley.
“Now single panels are my thrust; they are what my life is about,” he said of his current work.
Flipping through the retrospective catalog, he stopped every few pages to recount a story. A mottled green painting, “Tableau Vert,” was done in 1952, after a visit to Monet’s garden in Giverny. Reds, pinks and oranges in other works reminded him of colors in Old Master paintings he copied as a student in Boston. “I always said I wanted to do a painting with two edges,” he said, pointing out “Red Curves,” a 1996 work with two curved sides that meet at sharp points.
Coming across reproductions of pieces in the exhibition at MOCA, he said: “California has been very important to me.” “Blue Green Curve” (1972) was bequeathed to the museum by Barry Lowen. Other major collectors--most notably Eli Broad and Douglas Cramer of Los Angeles and Donald Fisher of San Francisco--own large groups of his paintings. “There’s a space here that’s agreeable to my work,” Kelly said. “The architecture is compatible. New Yorkers tend to have relatively cramped apartments.”
Closing the book, he reflected on the retrospective. Then, as if speaking to his audience, he said: “This is what I have done. Make of it what you will. I just do what I have to do to keep happy. That’s what all artists do.”
* “Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective,” Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. Next Sunday through May 18. Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Adults, $6; senior citizens and students with ID, $4; children 12 and under, free. (213) 626-6222.