Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks Gallery

Ellsworth Kelly has recalled of his early development as an artist: “I didn’t want to paint people. I wanted to paint something I had never seen before. I didn’t want to make what I was looking at. I wanted the fragments.” In Ellsworth Kelly at Ninety—a title that refers to the birthday the artist celebrated a few weeks after the show’s opening—fourteen paintings and two sculptures in Kelly’s signature fragmentary style are on view. Impressively, all of the large works were made in the past two years, evidence that the artist’s age has not affected the prolific production of his work. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Ellsworth Kelly at Ninety, Matthew Marks Gallery. Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.
Ellsworth Kelly at Ninety, Matthew Marks Gallery. Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Working in his large studios in Spencertown, New York, Kelly primarily derives inspiration from shapes and forms in nature, a facet that was recently highlighted by the Met’s exhibition of his plant drawings. Attentive to the details of his surroundings, such as the curve of a green field on the horizon or the shifting shadows as they’re cast throughout the day, Kelly builds up his monochromatic paintings with thick layers of oil paint, creating a surface that is impenetrably opaque.

Ellsworth Kelly at Ninety, Matthew Marks Gallery. Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Richly colored, matte oil paintings are contrasted by white painted aluminum sculptures, which have highly reflective surfaces. Hung perpendicularly to the bright oil paintings, the sculptures mimic mirrors, creating a surface on which images of the oil paintings are inverted and gain a diaphanous quality, a stark divergence from their actual forms.

Gold with Orange
Ellsworth Kelly | Gold with Orange Reliefs, 2013, Oil and canvas and wood, three joined panels, 79 1/4 x 72 3/4 x 2 5/8 inches, Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Ellsworth Kelly | Collage, 1962, Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Shown on its own at the gallery's 502 West 22nd Street location is the luminous Gold with Orange Reliefs, which is based on a collage Kelly made in 1962. In it, the artist employs a large square panel painted in metallic gold—his first use of the particular paint medium—and has attached two smaller, orange panels, so that the curved shapes dip just below the bottom edge of their base, like quotation marks, or two diving swimmers. The piece is an example of Kelly's long-term engagement with abstract form, as well as his consistent desire to nudge his practice into new territory.

Four Panels
Ellsworth Kelly | Four Panels, 2012, Oil on canvas, four panels, 27 x 120 inches, Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

In Four Panels, Kelly conjures the minimalist painter Blinky Palermo, yet adds his own twist by attaching a fourth, white panel on one side of the typical A-B-A block pattern. Easy to miss at first glance, and virtually illegible in photographs, the understated addition is a subtle way in which the work maintains slight asymmetry. The white panel also creates an edge that is not painted, but is a “real edge”—an aspect that plays up the sculptural quality of the work. It is also the presence of the works’ “real edges” that account for the unframed presentation of all of Kelly’s paintings.

Black Relief over White
Ellsworth Kelly | Black Relief Over White I, 2012, Oil on canvas, two joined panels, 70 x 60 7/8 x 2 5/8 inches, Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Galleery

Although the works on view are unquestionably indicative of Kelly's signature look and style, the show at Matthew Marks also gestures to the changes that have taken in place in his practice in recent years. Having achieved a sharp, bold aesthetic that is all his own, Kelly has recently used his talents to expand beyond his traditional choice of mediums, designing the façade for Matthew Marks gallery in LA, and even his first ever tattoo, for Whitney curator Carter Foster. These recent, atypical projects are equally inspiring; proof that an artist who has already made an indelible mark in history can continue to push his work in new directions.

Yellow Relief over Blue
Ellsworth Kelly | Yellow Relief Over Blue, 2012, Oil on canvas, two joined panels, 70 x 60 3/4 x 2 5/8 inches, Image Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery


Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1932) lives and works in Spencertown, New York. After serving in the US Army during WWII, he attended art school in both Boston and Paris. Returning to the US in 1954, he began exhibiting his work in New York in 1956. Retrospectives of his work have been organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. In honor of his 90th birthday, eight museums and institutions have organized Kelly exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art and The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Ellsworth Kelly at Ninety is on view at Matthew Marks Gallery through June 29th.

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

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