Ellsworth Kelly at the Tate
Ellsworth Kelly’s grand expanses of colour, his monumental soaring columns, have a grand perfection. They cross the boundary from painting to sculpture to architecture, with a lifting surge of optimism.
The earliest paintings in the Tate’s selection (from the New York and Los Angeles shows) date from the artist’s post-war years in Paris. Kelly sudied art in France for six years thanks to a grant provided under the US G.I. Bill of Rights.
But even before his Parisian sojourn, Kelly had visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Guggenheim). There the 23-year old Kelly could see semi-abstract paintings by fellow American Georgia O’Keefe such as Lake George Window as well as Russian avant-garde abstractionists such as Malevich, Gabo, Pevsner and Rodchenko.
The curators of the present show and Kelly himself play down the impact of the Russian pioneers. But his impassioned search for pure forms and colours from the very beginning is so close in spirit and execution, it is hard not to see a strong influence.
For example, a 1958 photograph of the artist in his New York studio shows him merging his naked body with his own paintings in an almost mystical way typical of the Russian avant-garde, who sought to transform life as well as art.
Kelly proceeds with an uncluttered clarity of vision, a confident, forward-looking attitude. He absorbs his influences with a sense of purpose and direction which he never abandons.
Paris in 1948 was an important time for American artists. Many painters and musicians considered it as a kind of Mecca. It was the city of Picasso and the land of Matisse, both of whom had remained in France during the German occupation. It was a place to learn as well as escape from the prejudices against art and race, especially for Black musicians and writers such as James Baldwin.
The Surrealist movement was also important for Kelly. He adopted the Surrealist ideas of "automatism" and the "law of chance" to endow his carefully worked geometric forms with life and spontaneity. He returned to New York in 1954 and in the course of the next crucial decade, the rounded, organic curves he painted in the late 1950s turn into severe rectangles.
But then he frees himself from those closed planes and gradually moves towards forms which point towards something outside themselves, which move through space. The strict squares and rectangles of the 1960s become open-ended, parabolic forms moving towards infinity.
In the second half of the show, which presents work from the last 25 years, the vibrant shaped reds, blues, greens and yellows acquire their own life as they enter into a dance with their partners and friends on the white walls.
The balance of familiar geometric shapes with curved edges strive towards infinity. The entire installation is finely choreographed, using white space as an interstellar backdrop as Kelly creates a silent ballet. His pure coloured squares, triangles and rhomboids pick up where the Russian Constructivist and Suprematist masters of the beginning of this century were forced to leave off. The Russians too explored the existence of a painting as an object in its own right, rather than an illusion of something else.
Malevich, Rodchenko, Nathan Altman and Ivan Kudryashov made works very close to Kelly’s between 1914 and 1920. Kelly’s Black Square of 1952 is amazingly close to Malevich Black Square of 1929. Both consist of a large black square with a white edge. Kelly’s Orange Panel of 1980 echoes Malevich’s Suprematism, of 1917-1918.
The daring pictorial logic of the Russian and Soviet pioneers emerged from an ensemble of social and cultural forces at the beginning of the century, which first revealed themselves in Russia, but were part of a global change.
The re-emergence of abstraction in Kelly, as well as others during the post-war boom, and still continuing today, is an affirmation that the achievements of the October Revolution are not confined to that marvellous but painfully brief renaissance in Russia.