Diplomatic Relations

Sarah Thornton on Ellsworth Kelly


Left: Ellsworth Kelly with Maria Tuttle and US Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle. (Photo: Roland Kemp) Right: Lady Rodgers with Irving and Jackie Blum. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

Waving a California driver’s license is not the way I usually gain entrance to a London art event, but on Thursday night the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert Tuttle, hosted a reception for Ellsworth Kelly at which security was particularly tight. Three rifle-toting British police officers were stationed outside; when I asked if they were performance artists, they gave me a stunned look. It was a night of colliding realities. The young black British Minister for Culture, David Lammy, exchanged pleasantries with faceless Republican cultural attachés. The gay art world turned up but warily reverted to restrained handshakes rather than air kisses. English artist Jane Wilson said, “Bless the Yanks. They’re serving delicious gin & tonics and we’re allowed to smoke.”

The Ambassadorial residence is a 1930s fantasy of Georgian architecture of the sort that Europeans will immediately recognize as “nouveau.” Full of chintzy patterns, it’s not an obvious fit for contemporary art, and it was not until the Tuttles moved in eight months ago that the house was introduced to the wonders of abstraction. Still, in the public rooms (where most of the works are on loan from American museums through the “Art in Embassies” program) the only two living artists are Kelly and, the lone non-American, Anish Kapoor.

I relish nothing more than a diagnostic read of people’s bedrooms, so I was delighted when Ambassador Tuttle took a small crowd, including curator Rochelle Steiner and me, upstairs for an enthusiastic tour of his private collection. We saw many reminders of home—works by LA-based artists like David Hockney, Ed Ruscha, and Sam Francis—but the high point was a face off between two of Picasso’s women in the master suite. A classic grey painting of Jacqueline glared jealously at an unusual portrait of Dora Maar. “It’s all women in my bedroom,” quipped the affable Ambassador.

Downstairs, under a late de Kooning landscape hung between gold-framed Rococo mirrors, I asked Steiner, Why Ellsworth now? “Isn’t it obvious?” she exclaimed indignantly. “He has a completely unique vocabulary that he established over fifty years ago, but he continues to experiment with form and color.” Later, I bumped into art historian Robert Rosenblum and asked the same question. “I haven’t a clue,” he replied. “He’s like meat and potatoes. He doesn’t register with the younger generation, but then neither does Mondrian. I’m taking the Fifth Amendment on this one.”

Left: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans with curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist and curator Teresa Gleadowe. Right: Artist Grayson Perry. (Photos: Dafydd Jones)

The next night, at the official Serpentine Gallery opening of recent Kelly paintings, the paparazzi were out in force. Photographers swarmed around Ellsworth as fans of all kinds desperately sought to get into the frame. The gallery was so crowded that the curator’s talk had to take place in the equally jam-packed drinks tent. During the drone of acknowledgments, I spotted Vicky Hughes, one of London’s more discerning collectors of emergent art, telephone bidding at the back of the room. When I complimented her on her impeccable etiquette, she blushed and said, “It was a charity auction!”

After the talk, I managed an audience with Hans Ulrich-Obrist, who enthused in his inimitable way that Ellsworth Kelly was “an urgent show—it is extraordinary that he is making this work now.” About his new job as Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine, Obrist said, “I’m looking super much forward. There will be no shake up, just a rethink. It’s the Serpentine . . . the park . . . the world. We think in concentric circles. It’s not empire building or globalism, but mondialité.”

Back in the gallery, I attempted an encounter with Ellsworth but was repeatedly interrupted, elbowed, and shoved out of the way by Serpentine staff keen to introduce him to people more important than me. Amidst the mayhem, I experienced one strangely intimate moment when Ellsworth sought out Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. The transvestite potter, dressed like a pre-pubescent girl, looked genuinely shocked when the great minimalist painter leaned in and said, “I don’t want to ruin your makeup, but I’m going to kiss you.”

After the opening, a top slice of 170 people headed over to the River Café, where the food was heavenly but the ordeal of standing up for more art world business was hellacious. Everyone (including a high number of White Cube artists—Sam Taylor-Wood, Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman, and Darren Almond) listened respectfully during Lord Palumbo’s toast. The indomitable Irving Blum informed me that Kelly is the “least expensive artist of his generation.” He’s “underground” because he works in a “tight, reductive arena.” When I asked how much Kelly material the good dealer had in stock, Blum gave me a sideways glance and said, “More than I care to reveal!” As I left the restaurant, I shared an existential moment with an uncharacteristically weary Richard Wentworth. “Is there a British art market?” wondered the artist-sage as if he were on a Shakespearean stage. “Or is it just parties, just noise?”