Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux
The Museum of Modern Art (April 30-June 4, 2012) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 5-September 3, 2012)
Installation view of Sculpture for a Large Wall (1957), © 2012 Ellsworth Kelly. Photograph courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.
“The form of my painting is the content…. In “Red, Yellow, Blue,” the square panels present color. It was made to exist forever in the present; it is an idea and can be repeated anytime in the future.”
– Ellsworth Kelly
FIFTY-FIVE YEARS FROM NOW, in 2067, it will be hard to imagine that 2012 was ever the current year. Generations will have passed, fashions changed, technology evolved, and once-new concepts will have become assimilated into the culture, or will have been forgotten. The notion of history repeating itself isn’t quite accurate, as humans populate the earth in unprecedented numbers and communicate – æsthetically and operationally – in entirely new ways.
Fifty-five years ago, 1957 – one year after Jackson Pollock died – was once humanity’s frontier: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road were published (while Jasper Johns’s “Three Flags,” Robert Frank’s The Americans, Vladimir Nabokov’s two-year-old Lolita and Elvis Presley’s star turn in King Creole were a year away in the USA); the Treaty of Rome established the European Union; the Jet Age was inaugurated by the aluminum-clad Boeing 707; and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics launched a shiny, 23″ aluminum-magnesium-titanium alloy ball called Sputnik into orbit, precipitating the Space Race.
Sputnik replica, United Nations. Photo © 2012 David St.-Lascaux.
1957 also saw production of another item incorporating lightweight aluminum: the 34-year-old artist Ellsworth Kelly’s 104-paneled “Sculpture for a Large Wall,” installed in the lobby of the Penn Center Transportation Building in Philadelphia, and now on display at MoMA. While hardly original – Harry Bertoia’s now-lost colored panels at Lambert Airport in St. Louis and “Golden Arbor” at Manufacturers Hanover Trust (recently reinstalled in the Joe Fresh retail space) directly preceded Kelly’s piece – “Sculpture” reflected the Zeitgeist of the technological new. “Sculpture” also demonstrates how often the new is built on the platform of the past: Kelly’s 1951 adjacent antecedent is “Colors for a Large Wall,” a 64-square square directly influenced by Jean Arp’s aleatoric methodology and John Cage’s indeterminate musical theory, as well as coinciding in time with Josef Albers’s color studies, closely following Piet Mondrian’s 1943 square grid “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” and reflecting art-cultural absorption of Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 foundational meme “Black Square and Red Square.”
Given the chance – and need – to situate “Sculpture” in its new milieu, MoMA and Kelly missed the opportunity to install it hovering above the ground – circumambulatable in central space, where it belongs.
Kelly’s claim that the plates’ arrangement in “Sculpture” is random is ludicrous in a work whose earnest organization is its paramount feature. Like fellow New Jerseyite William Carlos Williams’s mind-jogging “Red Wheelbarrow,” “Sculpture” shows just how much work goes into making something seem so.
“The Red Wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams. New Jersey Transit at Penn Station. Photo etchings: Larry Kirkland. Photo © 2010 David St.-Lascaux.
As an example of the transitory new, “Sculpture” today looks dated in the same way period fashion, furniture and other art-for-hire must (although the “stained glass” pixel panels of Spencer Finch’s “The River That Flows Both Ways” installation on the High Line put “Sculpture” æsthetically to shame, encapsulating time itself). It seems that newness needs novelty, context – and obsolescence. Context has also affected “Sculpture” in a spatial sense: removed from its original civic environment and hieratically re-sited, “Sculpture” re-emerges as a mid-century phœnix, reincarnated as pure art. Given the chance – and need – to situate “Sculpture” in its new milieu, MoMA and Kelly missed the opportunity to install it hovering above the ground – circumambulatable in central space, where it belongs – a concept that Bertoia explicitly used to describe his work, that defined Alexander Calder’s organic mobiles (his “.125” installed at JFK in ‘57, too), and that Kelly realized in his non-wall-stipulated sculptures. He got it right in “Sculptural Screens in Brass I-VII,” the airy dividers at the Transportation Building’s Post House restaurant that earned him the aforementioned large commission.
Briar (1961), © Ellsworth Kelly. Photograph courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Those most attuned to Kelly’s famous hard-edge painting will find his Plant Drawings in graphite, ink and watercolor at the Met another jogging experience. Sharing Kelly’s minimalist mindset – being largely expanses of white space impressed with thin-thick line or wash – they contain complex, organic shapes verboten to Malevich, who autocratically prescribed that art should contain no reference to nature.
Kelly’s contour drawings are remarkable in two ways: in themselves – as æsthetic compositions, and for what they psychologically suggest about Kelly. As art, Kelly’s compositions are meticulous and sensitive, incorporating diagonals, asymmetries and coloring book horror vacui invitations to produce tight, satisfying shapes. Essentially, as mounted and exhibited, they’re all perfect.
On the latter front, the Met show presents some unexpected insights. First: Contour drawing, which can involve not lifting the stylus, can be a lot of fun, and it can be done with eyes averted, or even closed, from a mind’s eye-view. One gets the impression that for Kelly, contour drawing not only isn’t fun, but, because Kelly doesn’t erase, the drawings are incongruously, ironically tense and boding; no Robert Rauschenberg-and-Jasper Johns defacing humor, no Cy Twombly smudges. These antipodal-to-Pablo Picassoan drawings are never tossed off, never masterstroked, never fluidly executed; this artist, it would seem, needs to be in complete control. Also, viewing works first produced in the 1940’s, most always on same-size fine art paper, one realizes that Kelly, even in his 20’s, always had his eye on the main chance, cultivating a fine art pedigreed self-image. The curator’s backstory – that Kelly throws away the outtakes (a slightly annoying factoid) – lends new meaning to the phrase “image is everything.”
It is a rather paranormal experience to view work so rigidly and Zen-obssessedly unvaried over sixty years. Maybe there’s a part of the human soul that needs certain things to remain predictably the same; maybe some things, like the uncontentious wonders of the floral world, provide comfort in their unassuming permanence and grace.
Although Kelly acknowledged a debt to Constatin Brancusi (indeed, Brancusi’s “Bird in Space”  provides a svelte, curvaceous coda in the room beyond the show’s last one), his debt to Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse – compositionally, thematically and visually, as well as to Arp – most informs these works: his watercolor “Trunk with Leaves” (1949) is a direct Matissean lift; ditto “Apples” (1949), of Cezanne.
The show also reveals that Kelly was doing plant studies alongside his early modern explorations. Its earliest work, “Ailanthus,” is dated 1948, when Kelly was 25, and its latest, “Poppy,” 2010. Whether these were/are arm-and-finger études, or became self-medicating antidotes to the artist’s compartmentalized hard-edge work may be surmised. Maybe Kelly has always liked plants, or finds them more renderable than people (his fewer portraits are mainly of the self- variety). A more interesting question is whether they show change or growth. Because they don’t, conclusions can be drawn: that Kelly, like, for example, Edward Hopper, has been remarkably consistent – to a fault – throughout his career; or that Kelly’s formidable talent has been ever-present; or that Kelly has avoided risk, challenge and change. While this would be a difficult case to make given his modern innovations (indeed, like all pioneers, Kelly is less associated with parallel movements he arguably instigated and/or influenced, such as Minimalism and color field painting), it is a rather paranormal experience to view work so rigidly and Zen-obssessedly unvaried over sixty years. Maybe there’s a part of the human soul that needs certain things to remain predictably the same; maybe some things, like the uncontentious wonders of the floral world, provide comfort in their unassuming permanence and grace. With their sub rosa photosynthesis, their shading mantles and flowery finery, Kelly’s silhouetted “Teasel” (1949), blob and barbed wire “Briar” (1961) and love note, green-washed “Wild Grape” (1961) will long outlast our passing scrutiny. One thing’s certain: In 2067, Kelly’s plants will be as present-day to viewers as Pompeii’s cast dog is to us, just as the sky is blue to us as to Cro-Magnons 40,000 years ago, and as magnolia blossoms were to Late Cretaceous avisaurs. His quoted aspiration notwithstanding, I daresay “Blue Green Red” of 1963, alas, won’t be so fresh.
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