Getting the hang of Kelly

From New York's Guggenheim, via Los Angeles, to London's Tate

Ellsworth Kelly is an artist of both immediate dynamic presence and lingering aesthetic effect. The consummate master of the shaped canvas, brightly coloured and monochrome, his works manage to be at once blatant and subtle. Paintings approach the condition of sculpture; indeed, he has made painted sculptures too. Whether free-standing or wall-mounted, a Kelly interacts with the space in which it hangs beyond the polite conventions of abstract painting, almost like installation art. And yet, unlike installation, a Kelly is always supremely self-contained.

One of the grand old men of American painting, Kelly is the maverick who made good. At first his style seemed against the grain of romantic Abstract Expressionism in its magisterial coolness, but it turns out this pioneer of total abstraction was ahead of the pack, anticipating in his hard edges and smooth surfaces the Minimalists who were to follow. But Kelly is not a Minimalist as such. Sure, implicit to his art is the idea that less is more, but what matters with him is what goes in rather than what is left out. He is not engaged in a purely intellectual game. His art is about sensation, with maximum appeal to the optic fibres.

The retrospective of the 74-year-old, which opened last week at the Tate, started last autumn at the Guggenheim in New York and then went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Through accident of travel rather than extremity of devotion, I happened to see the show in all three venues. The contrast in these viewing experiences was almost as striking as Kelly's work itself. Changes to the show were as radical, in their way, as cast or scenery changes in a travelling theatrical production.

Actually, when the show left the Guggenheim, it literally changed shape. In New York it had been a full-scale retrospective, showing Kelly's experiments with non-objective painting and design during his crucial years in Paris in the late Forties. It had him arriving at his style via European modernism, not as a dialectical reaction against Pollock and De Kooning, which is the way old-fashioned art historians present him.

At the Tate, in contrast, the viewer is plunged straight into ruthless, severe colour grids, as if Kelly was a ready-made Minimalist. The "re- formed" retrospective also left out three fascinating aspects of his career covered at the Guggenheim: the big, spare line drawings of flowers and branches; his funky postcard collages, which impose on city views or old master paintings torn bits of paper in characteristic Kelly shapes; and, finally, the artist's own photographs, mostly of landscapes and architectural fragments in upstate New York where he lives and works. The photographs home in on Kelly shapes as they occur in the real world: a shadow cast in an open hangar, for instance, or the curve of a snowy field cutting into our vision of a dark winter forest. The gallery housing these "complementary" works was the most crowded in the Guggenheim, and excited many critics, too, as it seemed to show the sources in nature of the artist's reductive if sensual visuality.

Perhaps Los Angeles' MOCA and the Tate left out the graphic works because they lacked a conducive space in which to hang them. Rumour has it, however, that the artist himself worried at the way critics read too much into these sideline activities, fearing he might be cast as a quasi-naturalist, despite the severity and singlemindedness of his pursuit of shape and colour. But this begs the question whether curators should collaborate with an artist who is hell-bent on presenting himself in a certain way, even at the expense of the fully rounded and accessible view his own work actually affords.

Kelly worked so well at the Guggenheim it made one feel that, if he didn't exist, the Guggenheim would have had to invent him. Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the museum, a spiral walkway that leads the visitor along the galleried circumference of an inverted cone, does to a modernist art gallery what Kelly does to abstract painting: they burst the conventional shape spreading all attention to the edges. In contrast to the ubiquitous white cube in which anything looks OK, Lloyd Wright's exquisite creation is notoriously difficult when it comes to hanging straightforward common- or-garden square or rectangular canvases. This is because the rake throws vision out of kilter and forces what is often unwelcome attention on to the arbitrariness of the conventional pictorial shape. Sometimes that can be a good thing, protecting the viewer from complacency in the way Picasso tilted the Matisse over his fireplace lest his eye take it for granted. But a painting you live with is one thing; in a full-blown museum survey it's a recipe for vertigo.

In Kelly, however, Lloyd Wright has found his match. The painter's eccentricities of format tease the quirkiness of the architectural setting. A feature of the Guggenheim ramps is that each work is allotted its own alcove. Kelly's paintings domineer the space around them precisely because the gaze is rebutted by the pictorial surface, all attention focusing on the shape itself, or the relationship between colours in works where two or more canvases are juxtaposed at odd angles. Without meaning to belittle Kelly, his work seemed to reach its apogee as the means of seeing Lloyd Wright's masterpiece at its best.

I say that in a straightforward modernist interior anything can look good. But curators at MOCA (designed by Arata Isozaki) and Nick Serota at the Tate give the impression of having been nonplussed by Ellsworth Kelly, despite the involvement of the artist in the hang at both institutions. By cutting all reference to the conscientious artistic progress that led to Kelly's brand of depersonalised, primary abstraction, the smaller shows compounded the tendency to sameness that is a feature of mature Kelly, the result of his purist reductions. At LA, to put it bluntly, he looked bland. Even at the Tate, whose director is one of the most able installers of contemporary art in this country, the show is chromatically crowded, visually confusing and, ultimately, more hard work than this easygoing, delicate artist should require.

One simply cannot concentrate on the colour and form relationships of one paired-down abstraction if a completely different set of colours and shapes are bombarding one's vision. Kelly's stated dream is of the viewer who can "turn off the mind and look only with the eyes". A cognitive psychologist would find this a bit dubious, but we know what he means: the viewing experience must be pure, passive and disengaged - the high modernist ideal. But when, at the Tate, one tries, for example, to contemplate Green White, 1968 - an inverted triangle of two joined canvases in the said colours - the closely adjacent Blue Yellow Red III, 1971, is rudely disruptive. It's as if someone is standing at one's side waiving the tricolour of an obscure African republic.

Once they had taken the decision to reshape Kelly and give us the minimal view, the subsequent venues may as well have gone the full hog and left out even more at the service of the perfect hang. The final room at the Tate was almost perfect but for a mote in the eye that spoilt the whole effect. The show climaxes with a set of five differently shaped Curves from 1996 in black, red, yellow, green and blue: sail-like forms that float on facing walls. But a third wall is hung with a 20-foot-long bronze piece whose sheer horizontality and brutal material are a radical affront to the delicately tapering verticals that are, thanks to the presence of the bronze, impossible to enjoy.

At the time of the Guggenheim show last autumn, Matthew Marks, a commercial gallery in New York's Chelsea district, exhibited in its enormous top- lit football pitch of a gallery just seven new pieces of similar format: a daring gesture, at risk of seeming precious, that paid in trumps. With the same faith in less being more, a similar display in the Tate's North Duveen Gallery would have given Londoners a better dose of the Kelly treatment than this truncated yet jumbled retrospective. Still, take a pair of blinkers along and try to enjoy this refreshing, delectable painter n

Ellsworth Kelly is at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) to 7 September

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