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

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?