No abstract artist has embraced such purity of form and colour as Ellsworth Kelly, whose retrospective is about to open at the Tate Gallery.
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Wall: Thus, have I, Wall, my part discharged so;

And being done, thus Wall away doth go.

`A Midsummer Night's Dream', Act V Scene 1.

Not Since Shakespeare has anyone had so much fun with the dumbness of walls as Ellsworth Kelly. Restive at the way museum and living-room walls bridle the freedom of modern art, Kelly has devoted his career to busting loose from their confinement. "To hell with pictures," he has said. "They should be the wall." And at their strongest his paintings and reliefs eat up the wall's space, or else co-opt it as a bit player in his loud theatre of colour and shape. Paradoxically, though, Kelly needs walls - straight old two-dimensional walls - in order to make us aware of their cloddish redundancy. The emphatically curvy Guggenheim is thus a potentially tricky site for an Ellsworth Kelly retrospective; Diane Waldman, who has installed his bulging, self-levitating forms around the spiral terraces of the Big Escargot, seems to have risked a curatorial nightmare. And there are, in fact, places where the rolling ramps disconcertingly jiggle the stillness against which Kelly's work needs to dance, float, or stand pat. All the waviness makes for spatial tautology, rather as if a Calder mobile were suspended from the undercarriage of a jet plane. For the most part, though, the architectural peculiarities of the Guggenheim collude, rather than collide, with the multidimensionality of Kelly's work, not least because the museum has straightened out the bay walls for this show. To catch sight of the big, crescent-shaped Red Curve beside the circle-segment Blue Curve, framed by a half-moon opening high on the gallery wall, is to participate, with sudden directness, in Kelly's dialogue between objects and their surrounding space. If you look over the circular well at Black Ripe, on the opposite wall, the biomorphic blob seems to burgeon before your eyes, swelling, and pressing against its narrow white containing skin. At the Guggenheim, you can sense what Kelly means when he characterizes his work as constantly ermerging - like the plants and flowers he likes to draw, unfolding at time-lapse speed.

Not that Kelly's best work - opulently coloured and gracefully formed - needs much help from artfully contrived angles of vision. Its strength has always been its winning combination of perceptual subtlety and sensuous immediacy: a philosophical delicacy of vision pumped up into raw chromatic heft. It's this odd alliance of sweetness and might which has made Kelly such an awkward fit in the canon of American modernism, where, too often, the elemental purity of his work has been mistaken for jejune intuition. At one end of the opinion spectrum, critics nervous of pure shape, laconic theory, and untextured brushwork have tried to square his singular manner with the standard categories of art-crit convenience - the Mondrian succession; proto-minimalism; high formalism; "hard-edge" - none of which suit the case. At the other end are those who peer at the big, flat, bright shapes attached to the wall and, like one woman at the Guggenheim the other day, see nothing but big, flat, bright shapes attached to the wall, and exit swiftly, declaring, "Fuggeddahboutit!"

If anything can persuade the public not to forget about it but, instead, to give Kelly the rapt attention his art deserves, this retrospective will. One of its many pleasures is its revelation of the play of Kelly's thoughtfulness - especially visible in the rich and essential exhibition of his works on paper. Though the progress from his early Paris years to his most recent sculptures and reliefs may seem a road full of sharp bends and swerves, his career has in fact followed remarkably consistent principles. All his work begins with a moment of perceptual serendipity - a shadow, a reflection, a partly obscured object or shape - from which he then shears away a visual fragment. That fragment, exposed to his creative imagination, becomes simultaneously fixed and transformed, and arrives at an entirely separate life, one that may distil, summarise, or imply its source but never actually describes it.

This opportunism of the broken glimpse first worked its sorcery on Kelly in Paris, in the late Forties. He arrived there in 1948, after a stint at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts school, with a passionate interest in Romanesque architecture and Byzantine icons, both of which have remained with him most of his life. Walking an exhibition in the Musee d'Art Moderne in 1949, he noticed that the windows between the paintings were more arresting than the works themselves, in that they suggested conjunctions of lines and planes that could be detached from the material object and transposed, virtually intact, into an independent art form. The result, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, retains the dimensions of its source, as well as the division between the lit upper and shaded lower halves, yet by its opaqueness cuts itself off from its functional history. As an epitaph for conventional painting, the work is inadvertently eloquent, since the equation of the picture plane with a window, behind which the illusion of depth is perspectivally ordered, has been the defining principle of representational art since the Renaissance. So there is something both mysteriously archaic and supremely modern about Kelly's work, with its hostility to the figure-ground distinction and its emulation of the flattening wall work of fresco and icon painters.

Not that Kelly has been immune to the impulses of the contemporary. Many of his seen-betweenthe-lines pieces from the French period sparkle with an improvised jazziness that is pure American-in-Paris - though distinctively Ellsworth, rather than Gene, Kelly. Broke and lonely, he took a night- time job as a janitor at the Marshall Plan offices, but managed, through his friend Jack Youngerman, to come to the attention of some of the eminences of post-war Paris modernism. Mondrian's literary collaborator, Michel Seuphor, introduced Kelly to Hans Arp, whose own poetic elementalism (along with that of Brancusi and Malevich) has clearly had a formative impact on him. Arp had experimented with chance composition (or, rather, with anticomposition), and Kelly applied some of its practices to his own way of seeing through half-closed eyes. Reflected city lights glinting on the river were sketched, broken into fragments, and reassembled, partly intuitively, to make the staccato black-and-white Seine. November Painting consists merely of shreds of torn paper laid randomly on a gessoed panel, but somehow evokes both the present and the past - the scuttering motion of fallen leaves driven by the wind and also fossilized forms embedded in chalk. The exceptionally beautiful Cite, with its swimming, irregular bands of black and white, originated in a dream that came to Kelly when he was staying overnight at the Cite Universitaire in which his students at the American School were perched on scaffolding like roosting jackdaws. The child's vision, at once ingenuous and wickedly shrewd, has never left Kelly, and is one of his most appealing traits: the faith in the mesmerising power of intense colour; the mischief of shapes that can be made to jump out of their skins and perform in unexpected ways. The freestanding sculpture Pony, for example, was suggested to him in 1959 by Agnes Martin, who saw a bent can lid on his table and instructed him to "make that". The artist did more, transforming the shape into a suggestion of the rockers on a child's wooden horse, painting the aluminium primary yellow above and red below, and slicing the metal with clean simplicity, as if it were a kindergarten wall hanging, cut from brightly coloured paper.

Pony also gets the Manhattanization of Matisse. By 1954, Kelly had sold just two works, and when he read an article on Ad Reinhardt in ARTnews he wondered if New York might not be more receptive than Paris to his flat planes of colour. It was and it wasn't. The intense gestural drama of Pollock's and Kline's Abstract Expressionism was about as far from Kelly's self-effacing purism as one could get, but, if the art world of Greenwich Village was unwelcoming, the fellow artists in Coenties Slip, like Rauschenberg and Martin, were at that time coming to be interested in a manner of painting which proclaimed the absence rather than the presence of the painterly hand. And while Kelly remained far from the Abstract Expressionists, he responded to their energy by combining colours and angles for dynamic, rather than static, effect.

Though his work was shown in 1965 by Sidney Janis, who had also championed Mondrian, Kelly's panels of single colours, either separate or set in horizontal or vertical combinations, presupposed freedom, not order. Where the Dutch master's colour planes all need to be seen at once for their meditative harmony to register with full force, Kelly's bands of what by Mondrian's standards are shockingly unadulterated tints need to be read sequentially - like the planes of red, gold, and orange in Gaza, which gather speed and heat and head out of the top of the frame. While Mondrian's work seems to sit lotuslike in the harmonious austerity of his apartment, Kelly's is very much Out-on-the-Town. Mondrian's art is meant to transcend the material world, Kelly's to celebrate his satisfaction with its surfaces and signs. Even Kelly's Broadway, the monolithic block of scarlet that at first sight seems to be occupying virtually the entire canvas, proves on closer inspection to be notionally "hinged" against a white ground, the red bled off only at the top edge, so that the painting appears to be opening itself into an imagined lit yonder. Rebound, which looks spectacular seen from the distance of an opposite Guggenheim terrace, can be read either horizontally, as two voluptuously fleshy white forms pleasurably brushing against each other, or vertically, as two opposing, sharpened black cusps. But these alternative visions can never be simultaneously available: they leave the hypnotised gaze to bounce glassily between the one and the other.

Kelly's work in the early Sixties is full of such wisecracks and counterpunches. At a time of cultural fast-forward, his outward, roving eye was gobbling up all kinds of schematized visual information (road maps, traffic signs, nautical flags, architectural and archeological plans), emptying them of their signifying meanings; he then looked, out of the corner of his inner eye, at what remained. Some of the most spirited paintings in this period are Kelly's version of on-the-road works - abstract suburban pastorals, with all middle- distance effects obliterated, as in the speedy green-and-white Jersey, or in Block Island II, where an aerial view has been scrambled together with a sideon image, and both are punched flat like the shapes on a banner or pennant.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Kelly intensified the process by which his sources were rendered down into elemental forms. Sometimes the tense relationship between two strong colours constitutes the drama of the pieces, and sometimes it is the relationship between a single colour and the wall, so that a trapezoidally distorted rectangle is uncannily made to appear flying away from the spectator through the wall barrier, and off into indeterminate space. It may be here, confronted with opaquely laid, simple colour shapes, that the fuggeddahboutit lobby signs off, and, indeed, there are one or two moments in this exploratory period where the obsession with deadflat comes perilously close to inert. More surprising is the degree to which an apparently elementary juxtaposition of colour shapes can open up an entire shifting universe of tension, relaxation, conflict, and serenity, so that the economy of the means is out of all proportion to the magnitude of the effect. Anyone still in doubt should go stand in front of Blue Curve III and sense the circle segment slowly rising against its surmounting white triangle, the lower edge of which has been curved so that it seems to be both restraining and yielding to the inexorable ascent. Or the even simpler 1970 White Black, in which the upper panel, though actually painted as flatly as the lower, contrives the effect of infinity against which the white panel stands as a denying barrier. This is pure magic - the kind of wordless revelation that only the most confident abstraction can deliver, and it's light-years away from the design-driven formalism of which Kelly has been unobservantly accused.

Though Kelly is a skilled manipulator of optical values, there is no cheap deceit about his practice. The ingenuity with which colour shapes are brought together to give the impression of delicate movement - a slide or a shift - belongs to his ambition (shared philosophically, but not practically, with more austere minimalists, like Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Tony Smith) to collapse the distinction between sculpture and painting, figure and ground. Kelly's flattened menhirlike columns, especially as they are sited in the Guggenheim's galleries, look ethereally two-dimensional, while some of the most ambitious recent paintings are true reliefs, mounted several inches from the wall, so that the play of shadow gives them lift and motion. The Nineties work, carefully lit by the artist himself together with Diane Waldman, represents a consummation of his desire to distil a universal language from elemental forms. There is not a trace of monotony here. The closely adhering shapes of Orange and Gray, for example, one curved and the other triangular, are put in perfect equipoise with each other, so that they share a single contour, whereas in Orange Red Relief (For Delphine Seyrig) the dominant orange square appears to be arrested in its heavy fall away from the inadequately supporting red.

Many of these unresolved tensions and motions have a directly sensual impact, which corresponds to the primordial coupling of yoni and lingam that Kelly, as a young man in France, had suggested with his phallic Kilometer Marker and softly folded Mandorla. But the effect, I think, is less psychological than anthropological: the artist reaching for forms, akin to those revered by ancient religions, that are simultaneously spiritual and earthly - both rooted in the ground and heading, like the birds that the child Kelly copied from Audubon, for the heavens. This, at least, seems apparent in the marvellous room, in the high gallery, where Kelly's most recent Curves are shown, in calculated relationships with each other: the sharp yellow triangle, its left-hand edge eaten away so that the wall itself seems to be pressing it outward, facing a serenely stationed green; the opulent belly of the red curve arching away from the trapezoidal black. Together, they appear about ready to loose their moorings from the Guggenheim walls and drift off out of the museum and over Central Park - great weightless monuments turning, rotating, and shifting like the dimly seen planetary bodies whose celestial music they seem, mysteriously, to echo.

c 1996 Simon Schama. This article originally appeared in `The New Yorker'; reprinted by permission; all rights reserved. Ellsworth Kelly: Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), 12 June to 7 September. (Sponsored by Hugo Boss.)