When Two Colors Meet: Ellsworth Kelly at MoMA
Ellsworth Kelly: Chatham Series
May 23 to September 8, 2013
The Museum of Modern Art
The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Painting and Sculpture Galleries, fourth floor
11 West 53rd Street
New York City, (212) 708-9400
Ellsworth Kelly, a leading practitioner of monochromatic painting in the last century, chose to distance himself from the ideological positions available to him. From his early work, based on observations of shadow, light, and natural forms, to the geometric panels of the late sixties—paintings that were not about geometry per se so much as the beauty of the curve—he has remained a painter whose work is accessible to a larger art viewing audience. Kelly’s vision, like that of Josef Albers, has always been a source of uncomplicated pleasure rooted in the optical varieties of visual experience. So to discover in the withering days of a sweltering New York July an entire series of the artist’s paintings at The Museum of Modern Art was as exhilarating as finding an available iced coffee vendor on sun-baked 53rd street. The exhibition serves as a welcome reminder that great art does not always require a heavy dose of anxiety.
Completed in the early 1970s, the Chatham Series is a group of fourteen paintings Kelly worked on in the town of Chatham in upstate New York; a far cry from the Manhattan environment that had been the artist’s home since the 1950s. Unlike De Kooning’s move to Long Island at approximately the same time, Kelly’s relocating to rural solitude did not initiate noticeable changes in his palette, or generate pastoral themes. But it gave him what he needed: a larger workspace, fewer interruptions, and the luxury of working on extended projects. Each of the paintings in the Chatham Series is an upside-down “L” composed from two conjoined rectangular panels of different color. It is a simple and elegant, though not a pictorially intuitive choice, as each painting reads more as object than picture. Yet an important advantage gained by what might otherwise appear to be an arbitrary shape is how it seduces the viewer into considering its components as free-form collage elements, intensifying the interaction of the two colors without having to wrestle with the ever mystifying picture plane. The “L” shape amplifies color and proportion in a way that might otherwise have been subsumed into a more conventional and hence less effective pictorial language.
Typical of the series, Chatham VI: Red Blue, 1971 is a red horizontal panel sitting atop a shorter blue panel. The width of each panel seems equal, but the length of the red is greater, which feels counterintuitive. One would think the more intense red ought to be given less area than the blue, in order to balance the composition. Apparently—since its balance is flawless—either the horizontality has a diminishing effect on the red, or the blue panel, by occupying the lower region, reads as a counterweight for the cantilevered panel above, thus implying greater mass. Such questions enliven the proud simplicity of the series.
MoMA’s presentation is both generous and appropriate. As you walk from one painting to another, the wish to compare becomes overwhelming. Yet doing so runs the risk of trivializing the artist’s achievement regarding each painting’s unique solution. To address this problem, curator Ann Temkin installed the Chatham paintings in several adjoining rooms, taxing one’s visual memory of what has just been seen, and thus animating the effect of whichever canvas is under present scrutiny. A visitor cannot help but become sensitive to the subtle adjustments leading to each painting’s resolution. You begin to notice for example that none of the black panels are really black. Each is in fact a darkish grey, adjusted, one assumes, to whichever color is abutted against it. Even in the ones paired with a white panel, its contrasting black appears appropriately attuned.
As an expression of the universal mysteries of color and perception, Kelly’s Chatham Series offers the harried museum visitor a chance to relax in color, quiet their mind, and consider the factual beauty of a certain yellow bordering a certain blue.