Nazi Echo Tarnishes Kelly ‘Totem,’ Lush Drawings Redeem

Ellsworth Kelly, Joe Neubauer, Jeanette Neubauer at the Dedication Ceremony for Kelly's 40-foot-tall sculpture, "The Barnes Totem." Some have likened the sculpture to a single "S" of the Nazi SS logo. Source: Barnes Foundation via Bloomberg

Ellsworth Kelly, who just turned 89, has been getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, not all of it is to his best advantage.

In New York last week, the exhibition “Ellsworth Kelly: ‘Sculpture for a Large Wall’” closed at the Museum of Modern Art and the globetrotting survey “Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On June 19, the Morgan Library & Museum is mounting the show “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture” (through Sept. 9).

And Kelly’s sculpture “The Barnes Totem” (2012) has been given pride of place on the grounds of the new Barnes Foundation in downtown Philadelphia.

I consider Kelly to be among the strongest living artists, but “The Barnes Totem” is inappropriate.

The 40-foot-tall, stainless-steel, abstract sculpture, suggesting headstone and lightning bolt, is a dynamic work.

Yet the commission is unsuitable for an arts institution whose benefactor and collector, Albert Barnes, never fully embraced Modernist abstraction. This was a blind spot in his otherwise impeccable, avant-garde eye.

There are other issues. It was pointed out to me that “The Barnes Totem” looks exactly like the “S” in the Nazi SS logo. Once you realize the resemblance, it’s impossible to see the sculpture any other way.

Abstract Masterwork

At MoMA, there were other problems. Kelly’s monumental, abstract masterpiece “Sculpture for a Large Wall” (1957) was installed in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium.

The piece, an anodized aluminum relief, 11 1/2-feet tall by 65 1/2-feet wide, was originally commissioned for the lobby of the Transportation Building in Philadelphia. In 1998, the sculpture had to be removed. Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder acquired the artwork and donated it to MoMA, where it was briefly and beautifully installed in 1999.

Kelly’s large-scale, rectangular sculpture comprises 104 shaped panels suspended between double rows of horizontal rods. It’s a rush, one of the most thrilling works by an American artist in MoMA’s collection.

Marrying Impressionism to Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, the piece’s flashy red, yellow, blue, black and silvery panels invoke everything from an abacus to a train-window view of the world whooshing by and laundry flapping on the line.

Regrettably, the sculpture was installed recently behind a large, wide pillar, which demeaned the experience.

Muscular Foliage

Thankfully, the Met has done Kelly justice with the superb retrospective “Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings” (through Sept. 3). Delicate and muscular, organic and abstract, Kelly’s neoclassical plant drawings wed rigorous form with airy and ebullient decoration.

Practicing primarily as a purely abstract artist, Kelly is well known for his shaped canvases and flat, hard-edged color forms that torque against their grounds.

Yet he always has drawn from and been fed by nature. At the entrance of the exhibition is a 1973 photograph of the artist holding a cornstalk above his head -- its fluttering leaves like flames -- as if it were a torch lighting the way.

Most of the approximately 80 drawings on view are linear ink or graphite works on white paper. They suggest Cezanne’s apples, Matisse’s robust line drawings and Asian calligraphy.

Lauding Nature

Kelly’s drawings of seaweed, flowers, fruit, leaves, grass and vines are quickly executed and often larger than life. Like Asian art, they move beyond illustrations or studies to become homages to nature’s forms and forces.

In the line drawing “Oak” (1960), two leaves and stem suggest a crucifixion. In “Wild Grape” (1960), a progression of heart-shaped leaves moves like a line of musical notes across the page. Here, Kelly meditates on growth and evolution.

Kelly gets as much as he can from flora. In watercolors of the same subject, grape leaves are liquid, lush. The erotic, fleshy “Seaweed” (1949) speaks to Chardin’s “Ray Fish.”

And the line drawings “Seaweed” (1949) and “Four Oranges” (1966) bring us back even further, to the pure, abstract geometry of medieval stained-glass windows.

The earliest works in the show are interchangeable with Kelly’s latest drawings, demonstrating an intense, six-decade-long engagement with his sources.

In the folded, weighty forms of “Banana Leaf” (2008) and the spiral petals of “Poppy” (2010), Kelly -- seen in his best light -- gives us the essentials of nature and of drawing.


(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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