The Unexpected Humor of Ellsworth Kelly

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The Unexpected Humor of Ellsworth Kelly

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY — From the late 1940s to 2005, Ellsworth Kelly produced some 400 photo-based works using ordinary, mass-market postcards as the substrate. Handfuls of these gems of the art of collage are tucked into various Kelly monographs and other books; Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards, at the Tang Museum through November 28, assembles 150 of them, and the accompanying catalogue includes dozens more. The spirit of playful improvisation is up front in these works, their range of figural and genre references experimental in spirit, their facture seemingly unlabored (sometimes downright scrappy). Delightful in themselves, they compel reconsideration of the late, great artist’s more austere, visually refined abstractions with an awareness of both his sense of humor and his sense of place. 

Those abstractions are derived from the visual appearance of the world around him — from both natural forms and the built environment. The selection of work (by the Tang’s director, Ian Berry, in collaboration with the Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jessica Eisenthal) makes that familiar but necessary point with works such as “Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium” (1980; all works cited approximately 3 ½ by 5 ½ inches or the reverse). Here, a blackish polygon — a diagonally truncated rectangle, in this case — seems to flex upward from a baseball diamond seen in foreshortening perspective, bending along its major axis. The flat, earthbound geometry of the playing field is the point of departure for an uncanny spatial illusion. 

Ellsworth Kelly, “Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium” (1980), 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, copyright Ellsworth Kelly Foundation)

Kelly’s postcard works are hybrids of public and private imaginative spaces. Most of them originated as innocuous, generic views designed for mass consumption as tourist souvenirs; the artist’s idiosyncratic and sometimes enigmatic additions qualify and redirect their original imagery, undermining it. In some cases, the artist seems satisfied to engage in easy if amusing visual puns, for example juxtaposing wrinkled denim jeans and distant, snowy mountain peaks, or pouty lips and a hilly horizon. 

But there are many more that deliver an unexpected jolt. Some are truly startling, as in “Nose/Sailboat” (1974), in which an oncoming yacht is largely obscured by a relatively enormous, full-frontal nose. The excised upper lip disconcertingly morphs into a sliver of the boat’s prow and its foaming wake. 

Kelly’s play with scale is fascinating. “The Young Spartans” (1984) riffs on the unfinished Edgar Degas painting of the same name, in which a group of girls approaches a bunch of young guys with a not entirely clear challenge. On the left side of the collage, obscuring those girls, is a Kelly-esque red-and-white form, roughly diamond-shaped and balancing on one point. The substituted collage element echoes the girls’ aggressive gesture and channels their moxie. 

Ellsworth Kelly, “Nose / Sailboat” (1974), 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches (collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, copyright Ellsworth Kelly Foundation)

Other surrogate Kellys populate much of the exhibition, notably a group from the mid-1960s involving Parisian architectural landmarks. A scrap of paper a few square inches in size assumes monumental scale in “Study for Blue and White Sculpture for Les Tuileries” (1964), where it nearly eclipses the garden’s triumphal arched gate. A few others recall the overtly comic effect of Claes Oldenburg’s work in the altered-postcard idiom. In “Colossal Head of Harrison Ford” (1984), the actor’s head, in grainy black and white, sits askew amid a group of sunbathers on a bayside lawn, gazing stoically at the viewer. 

The incongruity of the elements makes this image work, but many others hinge on the impression that the human body, or parts thereof, are merging with or emerging from the landscape. An open, toothy mouth dominates the summit of the landmass in “Volcano” (1977), as if the mountain is about to vocalize, or perhaps vomit. The hand and arm in “Hand/Antilles” (2005) seems to extend from the distant island across the water and toward the viewer, bringing with it an icy blue surround that contrasts vividly with the warm tones of the sandy beach, and with the emerald sea. 

The atmosphere gets even weirder in “Images des Antilles 4/5”(1984). The source image is a photo of a picturesque tropical island cottage, among shadowy foliage in strong afternoon sunlight. Kelly’s addition of eyes, fingers, and a mouth — tinted orange-pink in boudoir-photo fashion, and sprouting from shrubbery to the left and right of a starkly contrasting open door — gives the image a menacing edge. In fact, these features recalibrate the entire scene — suddenly it’s nighttime, and the cottage is washed with floodlights. It’s funny/creepy in the way that John Stezaker’s collages can be, making you uneasy about how readily objective reality can be tweaked, made strange and unsettling. 

Ellsworth Kelly, “The Young Spartans” (1984), 4 1/8 x 5 7/8 inches (collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, copyright Ellsworth Kelly Foundation)

Kelly ramps up the level of formal complexity in such works as “Amsterdam” (1979). A façade of residential brickwork overlooking a placid canal is the backdrop for a mass of overlapping scraps of imagery, some apparently torn from a newspaper or magazine ad for boots. This and many of the other relatively baroque images in the show are formally engaging but lack the hallucinatory quality of Kelly’s more streamlined, edited efforts — those in which a single personal, private object, fragment, or glyph infiltrates and usurps the pictorial space of the received, public image. The economy of those gestures is visually thrilling.

This is how I make sense of the fact that the same artist responsible for these funny, odd, cobbled-together, corporeal, diminutive images is also behind such reductive, imposing works as “Dallas Panels (Blue, Green, Black, Red).” Since 1989 the latter has loomed, 35 feet high, over the atrium of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. Its four parallel, evenly spaced bars of unmodulated hues seemed to be from a different mind entirely. 

But I understand “Dallas Panels” as the distillation of the artist’s experience of the world. And not just visual experience — the colors plausibly correspond to brass, woodwinds, percussion, and strings. Its seeming simplicity is freighted with the associations of its context in the same way as the nose in “Nose/Sailboat.” 

Ellsworth Kelly, “Giant Artichoke” (1984), 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, copyright Ellsworth Kelly Foundation)

Kelly’s large-scale works sometimes seem to aspire to autonomy, appearing indifferent to their context, because they are so elegant, precise, and uncompromising. But the interplay of these forms with their surroundings is crucial, I realize, after seeing the Tang show. The postcard work titled “Beverly Hills” (1986) features a quadrilateral in achromatic, medium gray — a foreshortened square, stretching like a huge carpet or parking lot across an aerial view of the ritzy town near Los Angeles (which looks distinctly unglamorous in this vintage photo).

Years later, Kelly revisited this elemental form for his stunning “Ground Zero,” a proposal for a 9/11 memorial at the site of the World Trade Center that consists of a grass-green polygon — another foreshortened square — superimposed on an aerial view of the site of the twin towers (by photographer Vincent Laforet), as it appeared in The New York Times on August 31, 2003. Amid the photo’s visual cacophony, Kelly’s green panel rings like a bell.   

Ellsworth Kelly, “Columbus Circle” (1957), postcard collage, 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches (collection of Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, copyright Ellsworth Kelly Foundation)

The most compelling of the postcard works at the Tang share the strategic gestalt of “Ground Zero.” They take up collectively recognizable representations of ordinary experience as their premise and direct the viewer’s imagination to possible futures. They are alive with the optimism that such speculation implies — the “what if?” that motivates art, and life.

Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards continues at the Tang Museum (815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, New York) through November 28. The exhibition was curated by Ian Berry in collaboration with the Ellsworth Kelly Studio, and with Jessica Eisenthal, Independent Curator.

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