New York

Ellsworth Kelly

Leo Castelli Gallery Uptown

The relationship of Ellsworth Kelly’s sculpture to his painting has always been problematic. While his sculpture seemed like the logical outcome of Kelly’s particular kind of painting, it also seemed superfluous. His painted shapes, flat and taut, always looked ready to spring right off the canvas and become sculpture. But the sculpture, having “sprung,” suffered a loss of tension; it failed to achieve in actuality what the paintings achieved by implication. The paintings expanded confidently into real space; the sculpture, already there, appeared homeless and heavy.

In Kelly’s recent exhibitions (new sculpture followed by new painting), the relationship between his painting and sculpture has shifted, if only temporarily. While both exhibitions are somewhat below the level of Kelly’s best (and Kelly’s best, after 20 years, has set a very high standard), the sculpture suddenly seems more adventuresome than the painting. The new sculpture attempts to pick up where his recent curve paintings left off: the new paintings, on the other hand, seem to be sitting out this round.

For the first time Kelly is doing sculpture in series. Eight sculptures filled the front room at Castelli like a group of columns, or a grove of trees. Each is a single thin sheet of unpainted Cor-ten or aluminum. All are 10 feet high and narrow, up to 20 inches across, and curved in or out on their vertical edges, which gives them their own kind of entasis and slight allusions to muscular vitality, starkly visible against the white walls. At first the setup seems too completely conceptual and environmental. You get involved with the group as variations on a theme, your glance ricocheting off the many curves and shapes. The curved edges are sections of enormous circles (the radii are 46 feet or 60 feet); the metal seems to be something occurring briefly between two curves that ultimately soar beyond the perimeters of both the material and our vision. But gradually each piece becomes very distinct and individual in its proportions and shape. Each inscribes from bottom to top a different kind of upward movement or energy.

As the sense of an environment disperses and you realize that each can manage by itself (thankfully, because this totemic, ritualistic grouping finally seems a trifle out of character with Kelly’s abstraction), it is also clear that each must nonetheless be seen against a white wall. To a certain extent the shapes are silhouettes, but the unpainted metal surfaces clearly counter this effect. The curved shapes do, however, interact with both the white walls and the surrounding space as Kelly’s paintings always have: in terms of a tenuous reciprocal pressure, each pushing against the other, complementing, completing the other. The elongation of the curve tautens and integrates the sculptures so that they are no longer heavy or isolated in space. And these pieces have found, in this new weightlessness, an increased dignity and solemnity. Here, a maturing of Kelly’s sculpture results in an engrossing, appealing quality of animation: the double ability of these pieces to be both austere and slightly comical, almost as if they are as skeptical of their own simplicity as they are assured that it is sufficiently rewarding.

Two of Kelly’s paintings also use the curve; they are the more successful of the five paintings exhibited but they aren’t on a par with the preceding curve paintings. All the paintings are gray, a new color for Kelly, and all are rectangular, for the first time in several years. The surfaces on the two new curve paintings, Gray Curve I and Gray Curve II, are soft and brushy; they are the first Kellys in about two decades to look hand-painted. In both, the grays are light and close-valued; the curves are not distinct sharp lines but wide brushstrokes, making the color shifts somewhat hazy from a distance and indiscernible from close up. The curve proceeds across the paintings in a leisurely fashion, creating a soft, atmospheric light and space. Instead of expanding into space, these paintings merely contain it. It’s like looking at the earth’s curve, but it is a depiction of spaciousness rather than an immediate sensation of it. After years of making paintings which nudge toward sculpture, Kelly is suddenly making pictures. These two paintings are large: one is 9 by 18 feet and the other, more dramatic, is 30 inches by 20 feet. I felt I could walk into them, which is only momentarily exciting, because Kelly is substituting actual size for an intimation of immensity and spatial continuity. The size, surface, and colors of these two paintings seem vague and absorbent for Kelly, whose art has always been one of exactitudes. I am interested by Kelly’s efforts to push these paintings into untried territory, but the earlier crackling, outward flash is missing, and so far nothing has taken its place.

Roberta Smith