It’s pretty rare to have the opportunity to see the work of a living legend. There are very few artists who ever achieve this status, standing head and shoulders above the rest of us. If the measure of influence is equated to height, Ellworth Kelly is way up there. Turning 90 this year, this art titan is ripe for some celebration and seems poised to receive it; his work is scheduled to be exhibited in a series of museum-quality shows to ring in his ninetieth year.
The first of these exhibitions has just opened in three of the Matthew Marks spaces in Chelsea. Kelly’s recent works on joined panel, canvas, and aluminum can be viewed at 522 and 502 West 22nd Street as well as in another Matthew Marks location at 523 West 24th.
In his signature style of bold layers of oil on lively spatially referential works, Kelly is now squeezing more out of low relief as he joins colored panels to white supports in a carefully considered series of compositions. The binding of panel onto panel highlights the light and shadow created by the physicality of the form and adds a nuanced layer to the way his paintings operate in space. Most readily available in his works of white on white, subtle shifts of shadow lines move ever so slightly, emphasizing the floating nature of the forms and adding a welcome levity to the work.
Always one to be precise, Kelly is calculated in the way he adds elements to his work in his later years, exhibiting a work for the first time here that features metallic paint. The painted forms alternate between serious feeling hard-edged abstractions to more whimsical shapes such as a chubby letter “c” in the work Black Form II. This construction of more reflective luster pigment on aluminum is essentially a circular form with a carved intrusion that cuts in from the right of the piece. The opening acts as a counterpoint to the heaviness of the black form, allowing for play between light and shadow to activate the hollow space that extends into the center of the work.
The gallery on West 24th street houses a lyrical series of Kelly’s works titled Curves on White (Four Panels). Joining brightly colored half circular panels onto white rectangular supports, the series is set into space so that the viewer can dance her eyes across the forms, completing a visual sentence in tracing scale and proportion shifts between the separate paintings.
Seemingly unbound by age, Kelly’s work continues to progress even in the twilight of his career. Having already cemented his status as a monumental figure of NY abstraction, it must feel great to have the freedom to breathe a bit, experimenting with new materials in a way that is distinctly his own. This show is a fitting launch to what promises to be a landmark year for one of our most celebrated abstractionists. Eight different museums are set to exhibit the artist’s work throughout 2013, and we think it would be foolish to skip even one.
By Matthew Hassell