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Review: Ellsworth Kelly in Focus

Review: Ellsworth Kelly in Focus

Tate Liverpool, 3rd April – 29th May 2017

Words and photographs by Moira Leonard

Step into the Wolfson Gallery at Tate Liverpool this month and you will enter a tiny oasis of calm and tranquillity. An exhibition of 11 works, this is a snapshot of the great American abstract artist Elllsworth Kelly, who died in December 2015, aged 92. Here you can see paintings from his early career alongside later pieces.

Colour fascinated Kelly and informed his work throughout his life. Great big solid blocks of it, generally painted on geometric canvases and placed together to create an ‘object’ on a wall space. He was interested in how colour relates to other colours as well as the nature of what colour represents itself. To do such work justice there needs to be a lot of wall space, perfect for the ground floor Wolfson Gallery at Tate Liverpool.

Kelly was interested in chance, and his practice almost became a game. When I was reviewing the show, one of the wonderful storytellers and artists at Tate Liverpool said to me ‘Improvisation and Chance are two very different things. Kelly opted for Chance’.

Whereas Jackson Pollock and his contemporaries in ‘abstract expressionism’ were about gesture and the ‘me, me, me’ approach. Kelly wanted to get away from all of that and strip his painting back to the very essence of perception itself. ‘If you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, everything becomes abstract’ he said.

After moving to Paris, he began creating geometric collages using existing coloured adhesive tapes, cutting them into squares and dropping them into a lucky dip. He would pull out the next colour square which he would then apply to his sketch book very deliberately. His only rule was that two squares of the same colour could not be placed next to each other. Once he created his template he would paint each tape colour on a whole canvas and arrange the coloured canvases to create a painted version of his template, but on a much larger scale.

In homage to this technique, for the purposes of this review, and for my general interest in chance I have written 9 pieces of information about the artist/exhibition, placed them in a hat and will withdraw them randomly. Therefore, the next 9 bullet points will be in the order of chance:

  • Kelly was a contemporary of and influenced by Merce Cunningham (dance) and John Cage (music)
  • Kelly’s paintings become an object in the room
  • Born in Newburgh, New York, Kelly studied painting at the School of the Museum of Boston, USA
  • Kelly was born in 1923 and died in 2015
  • The artist grew up in New York, moved to Paris after the Second World War and eventually made his way back to the USA in the latter part of his life
  • Highlights of the display include Mediterranee 1952, inspired by his fascination with light reflections on the surface of the River Seine, and Orange Relief with Green 1991, a multi-panel combining clean lines, block colours and abstract forms.
  • Kelly was a big influence on minimalism and the pop art movements
  • ‘Following the Jackson Pollock drippy splashy thing, this was a new approach to abstracting in war based Europe.’
  • During the War, he served in the US Army’s camouflage unit as part of the ‘ghost army’ using inflatables and clever painting techniques to confuse the enemy about the location of the troops. This came to influence his work greatly post war

Interesting. To be a true homage it should probably be set in a table of nine squares, however, it still tells the story in a nonlinear way and I have to admit I did enjoy the process!

The exhibition forms part of a series of ‘in Focus’ displays being shown at Tate Liverpool now. The idea is to give visitors a free ‘taster’ of an artist’s work before the viewer decides whether to delve into a full-scale exhibition by said artist. So, if this show whets your appetite you can see more of Kelly’s work in a dedicated room at Tate Modern in London. I’m just off to book my train tickets now!

Exhibition runs from 3 April – 29 May 2017

Free Entry

Ellsworth Kelly in Focus forms part of Tate Liverpool’s spring 2017 season which features a new display for Constellations: Highlights from the Nation’s Collection of Modern Art and O.K. – The Musical. Ellsworth Kelly in Focus continues Tate Liverpool’s In Focus displays which offer visitors the chance to see a free display dedicated to a significant modern and contemporary artist. Tracey Emin & William Blake in Focus continues until 3 September. From 22 September 2017 – 10 June 2018 the gallery presents ARTIST ROOMS: Roy Lichtenstein in Focus.