The Barnes Goes Contemporary with Ellsworth Kelly, Sort Of...

by Carlo McCormick
Ellsworth Kelly, Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1956

"Contemporary" is a tricky word in art today. It used to mean something that was aggressively pushing forward the new. Now with the waning of such avant-garde radicalism into obscure nostalgias, and the supplanting of the new with the diminished notion of novelty in a post-modernist history that is utterly ahistorical, well, contemporary may now be merely a term for what is recent as made by people who are still alive. By such a measure, Ellsworth Kelly is indeed thriving and making work that despite its familiarity in the scope of his long career remains remarkably fresh. Seeing him speak recently before the opening of his major show at the prestigious Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, his continued liveliness and engagement is striking, even if one has to wonder how this now 90-year-old man whose place in history belongs to the innovations he brought more than a half century ago is meant to launch an ongoing series of contemporary art at the Barnes. Perhaps, as Kelly put it to us, "art continues no matter what is happening."

As one of the last men standing from those wild and wooly days of Modernism, the moment does seem to belong to Ellsworth Kelly. With exhibitions devoted to his work being mounted around the world -- an impressive show of art he has made over the past two years running at the blue chip Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea from May 11th to June 29th (concurrently at two of the gallery's spaces, 502 and 522 West 22nd Street), and Philadelphia leading the biggest celebration, bringing back not only his much-heralded public art commission "Sculpture for a Large Wall" to the Barnes that he did for the Philadelphia Transit Building in 1956-57 (where it resided until 1998, at which point it was acquired by MoMA) but honoring him further with a delightful show of seminal early work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art --we might say that survival is not merely the best revenge it is the ultimate validation of relevance.

Ellsworth Kelly, Seine, 1951

If Ellsworth Kelly does not shock or startle the mind as his art once did, he brings to us yet that possibility. "Sculpture for a Large Wall," a monumental dance of forms that still inspires and was nearly lost to the less noble forces of progress (as he said of it, "when it's public work, sometimes you have to fight for it"), is well worth the pilgrimage to the town of cheese steaks. And for any who have not had the chance yet to visit Albert Barnes' eclectic, eccentric and erratic collection cluttered with modernist masters (it boasts 181 Renoirs, if that is anything to boast about), there really need not be much of an excuse to see it now that it has moved from its former suburban inconvenience to a marvelous new museum in the heart of the city. Surely as Kelly reminded us "art does go on" and if it is not such a linear line forward, as it once maintained, it is worth our while to gaze back at it from time to time to see just where we are.



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