New York

Ellsworth Kelly

Blum Helman Gallery

For years it seemed that one could always recognize Ellsworth Kelly’s work, but with this show he surprised. As Kelly’s work did of old, these 14 “Works In Wood” explore an ambiguous area between sculpture and painting, but now from the other direction: once the paintings were sculptural, now the sculptures remind us of paintings. Most are upright, of highly sanded and lightly stained planks varying from 6 to 12 feet in height, in fine woods such as teak and mahogany and more mundane woods such as maple and red oak. Each Is gently sculpted by bowing one or both sides slightly in or out. Some are mounted on walls; most are free standing but installed so near to the wall, and so frontally, as to be still close to paintings. One does not walk in back of these pieces as one does with sculptures in the round.

The movement of painting toward sculpture was of course a theme of Kelly’s great early work or the ’50s and ’60s, when he contributed to the strategies of shaping the canvas and of finding ways to combine two colors without suggesting a figure-and-ground relationship. Now, Kelly has not only found yet another place to stand between the two modes, but has sounded the charge for the wave of neo-Minimalism that some have been expecting for a year or so. As minimalist objects, these works stand somewhere between the unworked upright timber that Carl Andre, in 1960, called Herm, after the ancient Greek icons of upright stone, and John McCracken’s leaning plastic planks, which about equally resemble surfboards and the dark pillar of extraterrestrial facture in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Beside their interest as problem-solving theoretical contributions to the relations of genres and styles, the works are directly fascinating in their simplicity, and seductive in their presence. Kelly has always been a master of shape, and here again he uses it subtly and surely. Some of the works, like Curve XXXVIII, 1984, a 12-foot-high maple plank whose long sides are symmetrically bowed inward, make a traditional hieratic assertion of pure presence which iconographically echoes back through the herm to the neolithic menhir, Some, like Diagonal with Curve XV, 1984, explicitly deny the hieratic presence in favor of a mobile dynamic. Several, like Curve XXXVI, 1984, a 7-foot-high plank of wenge wood, have one upright edge straight. the other slightly bowed. These pieces remind one of Plato’s remarks, in the Philebus, about the pleasure of looking at the difference between a curved and a straight line; this pleasure, he says, is cool enough, sufficiently distanced from the pleasures that promote intense desire, as to be healthy. In the midst of the hot passions of today’s surging images, Kelly’s new works seem to readvocate such pleasure.

Thomas McEvilley