Looking at Art

Ahead of the Curve

Ellsworth Kelly’s sculpture, subject of a show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, makes the complex simple and the simple complex

The fan-shaped birchwood "radius" work Curve XXI, 1978-80, appears to hover midair.


Ellsworth Kelly’s home and studio in Spencertown, New York, are not dissimilar to the elegant, minimalist Chelsea galleries of his longtime dealer, Matthew Marks. The upstate complex, where the artist has lived and worked since the early 1970s, features a studio addition designed by architect Richard Gluckman, with an indoor and outdoor exhibition space. At the time of our meeting, two of his reliefs hung outdoors. One was a black bronze from 2004. The other, of recent vintage, was a wide triangle topped by a graceful curve—an iconic Kelly shape—with a glossy white surface that reflected the trees and fields in the distance. It’s a reminder, Kelly pointed out, that his abstractions are grounded in nature and the world he lives in, however mediated.

The 87-year-old artist recalled how he went to Paris on the G.I. Bill, from 1948 to 1954, immersing himself in Matisse, Picasso, and the European modernists. He “missed all the 10th Street activity—missed the Abstract Expressionists,” he said. When he returned to New York, Pop art and Minimalism were on the ascent, and he soon earned a place in the radical coterie of postwar American artists for his monochromatic planes of pure color. He was the “last American artist,” the late curator Kirk Varnedoe asserted, “who needed to go to Paris.”

Kelly is extremely busy at the moment, with a catalogue raisonné in the works and multiple museum shows scheduled for this year and into next—at the MFA in Boston, the Haus der Kunst and the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The MFA show (September 18 through March 4), titled “Ellsworth Kelly: Wood Sculpture,” includes 19 of the 30 unpainted wood sculptures that the artist made between 1958 and ’96. These are being shown as a group for the first time and constitute a complete cycle, since, Kelly explained, “I won’t be making any more.” Well known for his paintings, drawings, and prints, Kelly has received little critical attention for his sculptures—an unfortunate oversight that includes this important body of work.

The four earliest wood sculptures in the show, from 1958, are designated “reliefs” and have organic motifs reminiscent of Brancusi, whom Kelly met in Paris. The first of the four is a pair of modest-size wooden rectangles, darkened by age, with the curved shape cut out from one panel affixed to the other, positive against negative; the panels are rotated so they are not mirror images but are more subtly juxtaposed. Kelly has always been acutely sensitive to installation: to the wall as the ground/support; to the relationships of forms to their environment and to one another; and to how those relationships activate and shape space. In many ways, the artist—resolutely following his own vision in pursuit of color, line, and form and armed with intuition and formal sophistication—has redefined what contemporary sculpture can be, spinning the simple into something complex and vice versa, as Brancusi did before him.

Kelly began his next group of these sculptures in 1978, and over the course of the following decade made the majority of the wood pieces, with their recurring motifs, variants of the circle, rectangle, and triangle. In one teak construct, from 1978, Kelly aligned a rectangular panel diagonally along the edge of a triangle to suggest a fold. The blonde birchwood Curve XXI (1978–80) is an expansive, fan-shaped “radius” work, installed so that it seems to hover gracefully in midair, both solid and not. Almost all of the pieces have “curve” or “relief” in their title. They range from wall-mounted to freestanding works, with the horizontal reliefs (Curve in Relief IV and Curve in Relief V, 1981 and 1984, and Curve XL, 1984) extending up to 14 feet, the freestanding verticals up to 15 feet. These slender “totems,” as Kelly calls them, are flat with curved silhouettes, several flared at the top. They are typically created from a single piece of wood (as in Curve XXXVII and Curve XXXVIII, both 1984). Suggestive of figuration, they recall the Cycladic fertility goddesses, Brancusi’s Endless Column, and even Greek pillars, their slight swelling an optical refinement that animates and humanizes them. The arcs in Kelly’s works are carefully calculated, and sometimes barely perceptible, evoking the trajectory of the horizon as well as a section of a greatly extended circle. Kelly said he prefers the curve’s greater dynamism, dismissing the circle itself as “too familiar, too complete.”

Lightly caressing the unsealed wood of the sculptures, Kelly spoke about their “softness” and the need to “focus on both surface and shape.” Wood is intimate and yielding—the opposite of the adamant bronze, steel, and aluminum that make up the greater part of his sculptural output. The wood, unlike industrially produced metal, is “natural” and has its own material integrity, changing in color over time, a process he appreciates. Kelly selects his materials carefully—white and red oak, maple, sycamore, elm, mahogany, and less common varieties, such as padauk, wenge, zebra, and sapele—and is highly discriminating about color, sheen, and grain. Tracing one “expressionist” pattern full of tiny filigrees and swirls, he then found another, comparing its intricacies to that of a Chinese landscape painting. “I love to draw but I could never draw or paint that well, with that much detail. I would never have the time, unlike nature which took a hundred years to do this.” Referring to the vertical totems surrounding us, he concluded, “That shape is fast but the grain is slow.”

Lilly Wei is a New York–based art critic and independent curator.

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