Paris—the “city of lights”—has long been a hotbed of artistic activity, a creative nexus for writers, cultural thinkers, and artists alike. During his six-year sojourn in Paris beginning in 1948, American painter, sculptor and printmaker Ellsworth Kelly (1923– ), found himself particularly inspired. Kelly was moved by the glittering effect of sunlight on the Seine river, as well as by the play of light and shadow on the facades of the city’s buildings. Shortly after returning to the U.S. in 1954, his perception of these phenomenon was reflected in his monumental 65-foot-long Sculpture for a Large Wall (1956-1957), a work that is now the centerpiece of an exhibition on Kelly at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
“Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall” (May 4–September 2, 2013) features five works made by the artist between the years 1956 and 2012. While the artworks are few in number, the exhibition successfully hones in on the themes central to Kelly’s work. The exhibition also marks the artist’s 90th birthday this May, and the Barnes Foundation is one of several museums around the world—including Tate Modern, London, Museum of Modern Art, new York, and the Art Institute of Chicago—that are celebrating this year with exhibitions and other programming featuring the life and work of Ellsworth Kelly.
Kelly’s effort to break away from artistic conventions and challenge perceptions of art is at the forefront of the Barnes’ exhibition. In addition to exploring how abstraction could be employed to represent nature and observed reality, Kelly also takes great interest in exploring the intersection of art and architecture, painting and sculpture. In turn, he often makes his sculptures flat and his paintings three-dimensional. The painted aluminum works—floating sculptures that hang on the walls like paintings—that make up the exhibition challenge viewers to wonder, are they paintings or sculptures?
Kelly’s work is also concerned with the relationship of artwork to walls, and the interplay of positive and negative space. One cannot look at Two Curves (2012), for example, a white sculpture hung on a white wall, without considering the relationship of the sculpture’s curved form to its backdrop. The sculpture becomes almost part of the wall. Were it hung elsewhere, Two Curves would take on a different aesthetic entirely.
The sixty-five-foot long Sculpture for a Large Wall (1956-1957) is the exhibition’s centerpiece, and in its scale and composition, the work dominates the space. Made of 104 anodized aluminum panels supported by five rows of horizontal bars, the sculpture encompasses the explorations of color, form, light, and positive and negative space that are so important to Kelly. Specifically, Sculpture for a Large Wall demonstrates the way in which Kelly aims to free color and form from the constraints of the picture frame. Each aluminum panel is oriented in a different way, so that color and form are made to interact with both the wall and the space of the viewer, to striking effect. The work does seem to capture the glittering effect of sunlight on a river and the play of light and shade on buildings so ubiquitous in cityscapes. In this way, the sculpture becomes more than just a collection of panels of varying forms, but rather, a masterful composition of light, shade, positive and negative space, line, and shape.
Sculpture for a Large Wall holds particular significance to the exhibition because its inclusion in the show marks a kind of homecoming for the sculpture. The piece was originally commissioned by architect Vincent Kling for the Philadelphia Transportation Building, located at 18th Street and JFK Boulevard in Philadelphia, where the work was installed in 1957, and where it remained above the lobby’s elevator banks for over forty years. However, when the building underwent renovations in 1993, the sculpture was removed, purchased by Ronald S. Lauder, and donated to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York. The work is now on loan from MoMA for this exhibition, the first time since 1998 that Sculpture for a Large Wall is back in Philadelphia. This time, however, it is being hung at eye-level.
Born in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly is considered a leading contemporary artist. He studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts School before studying in Paris for six years between 1948 and 1954. It was while he was abroad that Kelly developed his unique style. By 1949 he had started to make abstract paintings.
In May 2012 the Barnes Foundation opened a new museum in Philadelphia with space, for the first time, for temporary exhibitions. “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall” is the Barnes Foundation’s first solo exhibition and first contemporary exhibition in ninety years. However, as Derek Gilman, executive director and president of the Barnes Foundation notes, Kelly’s focus on line, form, and color, were similarly of great interest to Albert C. Barnes, the founder of the collection.
Finally, the Barnes Totem (2011) provides a wonderful complement to the “Sculpture on the Wall” exhibition. Visitors will marvel at the forty-foot metal sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly permanently installed on the Barnes Foundation’s site. The sculpture, commissioned through the Neubauer Family Foundation, sits at the end of a reflecting pool, and is meant to harmonize with the trees leading to the museum’s entrance.
In just a few artworks, “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall” captures the themes central to the artist’s work. The exhibition demonstrates how Kelly strove to break away from artistic convention, and visitors will be pleasantly intrigued, challenged, and captivated by these works.
“Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall” is on view at the Barnes Foundation’s new Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia location from May 4 to September 2, 2013.