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In Living Color

Trying to Find a Way Into Ellsworth Kelly's Paintings

"Green Red Yellow Blue"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/6/2008

On the page they look like exactly what they are--four vertical rectangles, each a solid monochromatic color: green, red, yellow, blue. They're pretty to look at, obviously colorful, and that's about it. Installed on the wall that greets you as you enter the Baltimore Museum of Art's West Wing for Contemporary Art, though, Ellsworth Kelly's 1966 "Green Red Yellow Blue" becomes a much more substantive presence, and it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Sure, it's big--not imposing enough to dwarf anybody standing before the rectangles, but sizable enough that you can stand in front of each single panel and get lost in its hue. The panels are also exceptionally well made: they look durable, framed in metal that lends them an almost industrial temperament. And something about the colors themselves feels important, although it's hard to explain why. The red isn't merely red--it's a specific red, but specific to what remains elusive. So yes, "Green Red Yellow Blue" is a series of four vertical rectangles, and yet there's something about the modular paintings on the wall that makes you seek something in them that a mere four colored rectangles couldn't possibly convey.

The above observations only spotlight that the digital age has not been kind to those generations of post-war American male artists that include the abstract expressionists and minimalists. Not saying they're in any sort of danger, mind you: Their stories, histories, and status where it counts in the art world--in museums' permanent collections and on their galleries' walls--is firmly entrenched, arguably to the detriment of other artists contemporary to the time period. But, they don't truck the same weight they once did. The grandiose ideas of abstract expressionism and the sleek formalism of minimalism don't always translate well into a world where computer-aided design and reproduction can make the physical demands of such works feel a bit overindulgent. Worse, if you've only seen a Jackson Pollock or Robert Motherwell in a 72 DPI image on a computer screen, well, you haven't really seen the painting at all.

That idea has been the hair shirt for nonrepresentational/abstract art forever: the insinuation that you're just not getting it, that it has to be explained, that you're just not looking at it with the proper mind-set. Ellsworth Kelly does and doesn't belong in this company. Like many current marquee name American artists--such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg--Kelly debuted in the 1950s, when critics heralded that Manhattan-based artists were redefining contemporary art almost every other week. And like a few 1950s artists, contact with and exposure to a wide variety of other artists--such as John Cage and his experiments with chance--informed Kelly's own ideas about his media.

The BMA's Front Room: Ellsworth Kelly spotlights four Kelly paintings from four different decades--1960s through '90s--as a précis in how his work has evolved over the years. As organized by Darsie Alexander, the BMA senior curator of contemporary art, it's expectedly smart and refreshingly absent of wall text telling you what to think. Instead, it offers the large paintings--the above "Green Red Yellow Blue," 1978's "Diagonal With Curve," 1989's "Purple Panel With Blue Curve," and 1991's "Two Blacks and White"--along with three smaller works (drawing "Sweet Pea," print "Blue and Orange and Green," and the ink and collage "Brushstrokes Cut Into Twenty-Seven Squares and Arranged by Chance"). An accompanying pamphlet includes reproductions of the four large paintings, and beneath each appears a short Kelly quote followed by a concise paragraph from Alexander. If only all exhibits entrusted their visitors with the confidence to consider what they encounter in the galleries.

And it's the physical confrontation with these works that leaves a lasting impression. "Diagonal With Curve," merely an upward pointing gray rhombus with a rounded top, is hung on the wall like a diacritical mark missing a vowel, the piece exuding a certain somberness. It stretches upward, but the lower end is thicker and feels weightier, like an anchor, an impression that dulls the painting's attention-grabbing skyward right stretch.

"Two Blacks and White" hides even more complexity behind its simplicity: Two black rectangles bookend a white rectangle, laid out in such a way that the boxes become an irregular staircase when moving from left to right. It's an elementary design, using paint to create positive and negative spaces on the wall, but the piece feels daft when standing in front of it. It feels simultaneously blithely composed and somehow carefully elegant. And, again, its size gives it a more complicated attitude--not large enough to threaten, big enough not to be ignored.

And while these canvases do contain a rather severely austere form of beauty--elegance trapped in a look-but-don't-touch stillness--their, for lack of a better word, "thingyness" is what makes gives them an inescapable attraction: There is a "there" there, it's just elusive. Locating it might prove difficult--or even irrelevant--but Kelly's canvases here at least encourage the search.

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