Totems of tempered grandeur
Kelly conjures abstractions from the natural world
Ellsworth Kelly, whose wood sculptures are on show in a series of sprucy, palate-cleansing galleries in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, is an artist of refined sensuality. Just how sensual, and how refined, are impossible to put into words, since both qualities are locked in a supple embrace, one forever tempering the other. All you can say for sure is that, looking at his work, you feel yourself dealing with the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.
At 88, Kelly is one of the world’s two or three most acclaimed living abstract artists (only Frank Stella and Richard Serra have reputations to match), and my personal favorite. Most people associate his mature work with flat, carefully shaped planes of rich, unmodulated color, each plane placed subtly in relation to another. His “Blue Green Orange Yellow Red’’ was recently acquired by the MFA and now graces a handsome gallery in the Linde Family Wing. Another superb work -a series of 21 flat, square panels in bright, saturated colors - is permanently installed against the curving atrium of Boston’s Moakley Federal Courthouse.
Color - in these, as in so many other Kelly works - is key. The artist early on grasped Matisse’s insight about the relationship between (shaped) quantity and intensity of color (“one square centimeter of blue is not as blue as a square meter of the same blue’’). He ran with it.
But the wood sculptures are something else. They are brown, for starters - not a color Kelly tends to use elsewhere. And they occupy space differently. They are more frankly sculptures. They have none of color’s tendency to swell and transmute, turning material form into immaterial, emotionally charged space.
And yet they are, for sculpture, exceptionally linear. They don’t gain much from being seen in the round, simply because, though they are certainly three-dimensional, they are not in the least bit round. They are lean, both physically and spiritually. All the fat has burned off.
You “get’’ them just by looking at them straight on, registering their outlines (which curve tautly as they ascend or else fan out luxuriantly) against the wall behind, appreciating the perfection of the joins, and relishing, up close, the grain, color, and warmth of the wood.
These sculptures were made at intervals over the course of 38 years. They are really about Kelly’s intermittent love affair with wood. Each piece is made from a different variety. Just to recite the types is to approach a kind of music - a music to which Kelly himself is by no means deaf: elm, oak, walnut, teak, mahogany, zebrawood, sapele, maple, sycamore, wenge, redwood, birch, and padouk.
Each of these woods has different textures, densities, and shades. Working since 1980 with the fabricator Peter Carlson, Kelly makes full use of these idiosyncrasies. He invites us to delight in the vertical striations in the dark teak used for “Concorde Relief IV’’ (my favorite work in the show); to register the distended knots and meandering growth rings in the conjoined planks of blond birch used in “Curve XXI’’; and to marvel at the silky sheen and wispy patterns - so akin, as Kelly observed, to Chinese landscape painting - in the sapele used for “Curve XLIII.’’
The active play of such serendipitous discoveries links these sculptures with Kelly’s breakthrough early works of the late ’40s and ’50s. These were all about the operations of chance - chance noticing, chance compositions.
Inspired by visits to Jean Arp and his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in Paris, Kelly took to creating patterns (in paint or collage), cutting them up, then rearranging the parts - mostly at random - into new compositions.
One such piece has been included here, because its ultimate shape predicts the totem-like forms Kelly went on to make out of wood. The 1950 collage is called “Pages From a Magazine,’’ and the method of its making is kindergarten simple: Kelly cut out long, thin strips from a magazine then put them back together again, but out of order. The effects - not just the graphic Morse code of the printed paper but the wrinkles created by dried glue - are deliciously unfussy. Sixty-one years after its making, the work still breathes with intimate life.
Indeed, far from feeling coldly mechanical, Kelly’s rearranging captured rarely portrayed phenomena in the natural world, like the random sparkle of light on water or shadow play in the urban environment.
Ever since, all his abstractions have been rooted in specific visual memories - a shape, a form, a shadow, a reflection - recalled, distilled, rehabilitated in art. The results at first can seem suave and impregnable, like Paris itself, where he lived in the late ’40s and where his work gathered in potential.
But its suavity veils, and gradually reveals, a steady spiritual glow, at times even glimmers of a febrile idealism, as if Modigliani’s contours were married to Malevich’s zero gravity.
Before Kelly, one man in Paris personified this marriage of the sensual and the abstract ideal: Constantin Brancusi. As a young artist, Kelly visited Brancusi’s studio, drank in everything he saw, and listened to everything he said - even noting the old man’s yearning to be heard, his sadness at the young student’s imminent departure.
It’s not taking anything away from Kelly’s achievement to say that Brancusi, who achieved such extraordinary refinements in wood, such explosive sensuality, such lift, is the presiding spirit behind Kelly’s wood sculptures.
The show, by the way, was curated by Edward Saywell, chair of the MFAs Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. The catalog, with an essay by independent curator Brenda Richardson, is excellent: slender, informative, and with lovely reproductions.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A previous version of this review misidentified the exhibits curator.