criticismExhibitions
Friday, April 8th, 2016

A Process That Takes Place In The Mind: Ellsworth Kelly’s Photographs


Ellsworth Kelly Photographs at Matthew Marks Gallery

February 26 to April 30, 2016
523 West 24 Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 243-0200

Ellsworth Kelly, Barn, Southampton, 1968. Gelatin silver print, 8-1/2 x 13 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Ellsworth Kelly, Barn, Southampton, 1968. Gelatin silver print, 8-1/2 x 13 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Many of Ellsworth Kelly’s photographs, shown here in an exhibition of 31 gelatin silver prints, ingeniously feature the kind of geometric shapes that distinguish the late artist’s painting and sculpture: the triangle, trapezoid, rhombus, rectangle, curve and plank. Several prints are suggestive of the artist’s virtuosic plant drawings. The prints were produced under Kelly’s supervision just months before his death in 2015, and they were shot between 1950 to 1982. Over this long period, a singular attention to abstract elements in the everyday world remained constant whether the location was overseas or the US. In an essay from 1991 reprinted for the exhibition catalog, Kelly noted,

Two things interest me in particular; one is the way a frame — a window, an aperture — changes what you see. You can focus on things differently and frame them differently; your vision becomes fragmented. The other aspect is stereoptics — the fact that we have two eyes, and that we see things differently out of each. It’s very mysterious, but we tend to take that aspect of vision for granted.

Although the artist wasn’t referring to photography per se in this comment, his references to aperture, framing, and optics do relate to special things the camera can do, as well as to human vision. But no matter the tools or techniques, Kelly sought to study the world by cultivating his powers of observation. With regard to photography, he remarked,

Photography is for me a way of seeing things from another angle. I like the idea of the interplay of two or three dimensions. My photographs are simply records of my vision, how I see things. My ideas develop from seeing, not from photographs.

Kelly often noticed physical shapes in proximity to their shadows, or to voids. He made inventive use of camera optics and framing devices to translate ephemeral situations into enduring compositions. For example, the weathered, closed barn doors at the left of Barn, Southampton appear to be painted white, while the matching doors at right were folded open when the image was taken, so that the absence of light inside the barn printed black in the photo. Viewed across a wheat field, the barn’s middle gray tones offset this pair of white and black rectangles under a triangular roof. It may take a moment to register the roof and rectangles as abstract shapes within the scenery. But once you do, you’ve got your Ellsworth Kelly goggles on straight. As Kelly himself remarked: “Photography is about seeing in three dimensions and trying to bring it into two dimensions in a way that recalls the third. The process takes place in the mind.”

This comment is also pertinent to Doorway Shadow, Spencertown. A rhombus-shaped shadow falls from peaked boards onto a plywood sheet, where knots and grain gleam as if hand-polished. Their indexical texture is at odds with the flat black angle that dives to center. Seeing the world through the mind’s eye of Kelly’s camera offers an opportunity to understand a great artist’s work more fully.

Ellsworth Kelly, Doorway Shadow, Spencertown, 1977. Gelatin silver print, 8-5/8 x 12-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Ellsworth Kelly, Doorway Shadow, Spencertown, 1977. Gelatin silver print, 8-5/8 x 12-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Installation shot: Ellsworth Kelly, Curve seen from a Highway, Austerlitz. 1970. Gelatin silver print, 8-1/2 x 12-3/4 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Installation shot: Ellsworth Kelly, Curve seen from a Highway, Austerlitz. 1970. Gelatin silver print, 8-1/2 x 12-3/4 inches. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery


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  • CityMuffinBoy

    Deborah, thank you for this brief but brilliant essay. You’ve gotten at Kelly’s essence with an economy that I’m certain he would admire.