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Ever the Rainbow

Ellsworth Kelly has been playing with color and form for 50 years, letting his view of the natural world around him be his creative guide.

February 09, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Tall, lean, animated and gregarious, Ellsworth Kelly seems far too actively engaged with his work to be one of the art world's most illustrious fixtures. Artists who have arrived at that position are expected to sit still and hold court. But, at 73--with a 50-year career behind him and a retrospective exhibition of his work opening next Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art--Kelly is more likely to be involved with his next big project.

The first engagement of this traveling retrospective, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, was a major art world event and a landmark of his career. But Kelly didn't stick around for the duration. Soon after the mid-October opening, he was forging ahead. On a recent visit to Southern California, he wasn't finalizing MOCA's scaled-down version of the Guggenheim's enormous show, as might have been expected. He was working on three big commissions at Peter Carlson Enterprises in Sun Valley, a firm that fabricates many of his monumental pieces.

"It looks so simple," Kelly said, strolling into Carlson's plant and surveying "The Red and the Black," a massive new work that had just been finished. "But what it took to make it that way."

"The Red and the Black"--commissioned for the Tokyo International Forum, a new convention center and performing arts complex designed by New York-based architect Rafael Vin~oly--consists of two irregular rectangular aluminum panels. Measuring roughly 20 by 10 feet each, one section is bright red, the other black. The panels appear solid, but they actually consist of sheet metal laminated to a honeycomb matrix, using technology developed for the aircraft industry. Pipes and threaded connectors attached to the back sides serve as handles for technicians who carry and install the 700-pound panels.

Kelly marveled about the meticulous effort required to fabricate, move and install his work and to guard against damaging its pristine surfaces. But what he really loves about "The Red and the Black" is the alluring color of the red panel. A catalog essay for his retrospective recounts an experience on a hot summer day in 1959 when Kelly was so thrilled with the red of a recently completed painting that he took off his clothes and improvised a dance in the nude.

"I feel the same about this red," he said, holding his arms high and spinning around--fully dressed in cords, a dark wool blazer and loafers.

He is also excited about a huge project for Boston's new Federal Courthouse, expected to open late next year. Designed by architect Henry Cobb, the building is a cylindrical structure with two arms extending from the center in a V shape. Kelly has planned 21 solid color panels for the building, including a blue one that Carlson has finished. The nine largest panels will be installed--three across and three deep--in the 45-foot-high rotunda; the 12 remaining panels will fan out in the corridors.

The third commission was designed for the Guggenheim's auditorium. This latest in a series of totemic sculptures is a three-sided steel panel with two sides meeting at a right angle and connecting to a curve at their opposite ends. The straight vertical side will be attached to the auditorium's curved wall so that the piece projects about 14 inches into the room.

"This is where I am," Kelly said of the works at Carlson. The art in the retrospective is history, he said. But without the track record on view in the show, he probably wouldn't have won such major commissions. And taking a long view at his past work is an illuminating experience both for him and his audience.

"Finally I'm able to see what I've done," he said. "I hadn't seen some of this work for years. [After looking at it] I feel that I go from a couple of steps forward to one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. I use what I have done as a springboard."

Kelly is known for merging form and color in objects that react to the space around them. At first glance, his trademark paintings and sculptures seem to be the simplest form of abstraction. Bold, solid colors. Perfectly smooth surfaces. Crisp shapes. Large scale. Nice--but so familiar they tend to be taken for granted.

Yet his work actually encompasses such diverse items as a black-and-white painting based on flickering light on the Seine, gridded paintings with squares of color arranged by chance, weathered steel panels, floor pieces, multi-panel paintings, contour drawings of leaves and collages on postcards.

Indeed, pinning down Kelly's work can be surprisingly tricky. Often considered a precursor to the Minimalists, he is far too romantic and passionately involved with color to share their stark, geometric aesthetic. He is emotionally closer to the Abstract Expressionists and their descendants, but his work bears no physical resemblance to their gestural painting.

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