New York

Ellsworth Kelly

Matthew Marks Gallery

Unexpectedly, the you-are-in-the-artist’s-inner-sanctum photograph announcing Ellsworth Kelly’s show of recent paintings proved to be a revelation. Surrounded by an aura of splatters, a smooth geometrical shape of uniform color leaped our from the wall, radiant in the bright light of the studio. I spontaneously (absurdly?) read the splatters as signs of expression and hard work, all of which had been eliminated—left on the wall as so much waste matter, a muck of chance gestures.

Until I saw this photograph, I thought of Kelly as a machine for producing customized painting parts. I regarded his paintings as impersonal and perfectionist: efficient, extraordinarily economical in their means, they seemed like a rare specialty product, as if Kelly were a tool-and-dye expert who makes by hand what can now be computer designed and mass produced. His works are, after all, meticulously planned and measured—completely calculated. But the photograph for the exhibition announcement made me realize that Kelly’s paintings are profoundly personal—an act of heroic renunciation. To use Nietzsche’s famous distinction, where they once seemed to be the products of an economy of scarcity, they now look like the remains of an economy of abundance that has been ruthlessly destroyed. Kelly’s reductive process involves the compulsive denial of rich affect—the splatters are its traces—to achieve a perceptual epiphany or, more precisely, a new version of what Kasimir Malevich called the “desert” experience.

But Kelly’s epiphany has cost him dearly: his self-control obviates the self it meant to form, to geometricize. To me his paintings become fetishes, in the Marxian sense: objects split from their labor—from the inferior, irrelevant, grubby substance of painterly process, and from the expressive content of that process. What is left—the painting we see—is not the ultimate example of Modernist silence and solitude it claims to be, but eloquently hollow. Kelly’s art has been understood as belonging to the less-is-more school, but the works in this exhibition show that less has become less: God is no longer in the details. Pure seeing has become a completely empirical, descriptive, surgical matter. Kelly seems to view surface finish as an end in itself, with nothing but a peculiarly empty eternity behind it.

Yes, Kelly’s works are subtle—their simplicity is more apparent than real—but they are all too strategic. One work is typical: a green panel is mounted at an angle on a blue panel, a corner of the former on an edge of the latter. In general, Kelly (mis)aligns variously shaped geometrical panels to ambiguous effect: they form an odd couple, all the more so because their colors are often incestuously related. Perhaps the exhibition’s tour de force was the four works shown together in a small room: three in primary colors, the fourth green. Each color was seamlessly fused with an arc-shaped plane superimposed on a white rectangular one. It’s as though, after completing the cycle of primaries, Kelly began a cycle of complementary colors, which he left uncompleted. Incompleteness is in fact Kelly’s most intriguing, successful strategy. But in the end, all his strategies add up to a reductivist tragedy: in achieving the limited esthetic reality of his art, Kelly sacrifices the premium of pleasure—even his color affords none—that Freud thought art owes us for the attention we give it.

Donald Kuspit