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March 21, 2006

"If you're feeling stressed out, try this guy. He's better than a flotation tank." - Ellsworth Kelly at The Serpentine Gallery

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Ellsworth Kelly
Serpentine Gallery, London
18th March - 21st May 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm

In an over-stimulating world it can be quite restful to stand in front of a block of colour in an art gallery and feel quite blank about it. I had just such an experience the other day in the Serpentine Gallery. London can be a shattering experience: following tube lines and traffic lights whilst rushing to one's destination. But on my walk to the gallery, in Kensington Gardens, muted greens and greys calmed my senses. Inside the gallery, canvasses painted with what looked like Dulux gloss lifted my spirits.

If the above sounds silly, you should read the catalogue that accompanies Ellsworth Kelly's exhibition. Biographical facts first: Kelly, cited as being "among the greatest living artists" and pioneer of an "abstract aesthetic", was born in New York in 1923. He still lives and works there. So he knows all about frenetic cities.

The works exhibited here were made in the last four years, and prove that Kelly is still very much a vibrant and challenging artist. According to the curators, he is responsible for:

inventing a vocabulary of forms, colours, and strategies that [have] become the core of his practice.
As far as I could see, his work resembled that of Rothko - so not much inventiveness there. But it's still worth seeing this exhibition for the respite from consumer madness that he provides. His "strategy", if that is what you want to call it, is to plonk slabs of colour in relief on two panels against a white wall. There the resemblance to Rothko ends because he presents colour without the atmosphere or heady mysticism that Rothko provides. To sit in front of a Rothko is akin to a spiritual experience. Like Rothko, Kelly has abandoned conventional titles, sometimes resorting to numbers or colours in order to distinguish one work from another. And like Rothko, he resists explaining the meaning of his work.
Silence is so accurate
Rothko once said, fearing that words would only distract the viewer. How wise and how generous of him. To allow the viewer that moment of blank response is to invoke (in me, at any rate) a childlike wonder at my own physiological response to colour. At one point, having walked past waves of blue, green and red punctuating a wall, I turned a corner into what felt like a yellow sunburst. What I was looking at was a panel of yellow with an orange background. But having been soothed by repetition, my brain felt enlivened. That canary yellow made my heart sing. It was genuinely uplifting.

What is interesting about Kelly is that he talks (or paints, if you prefer) in the colours of everyday life. These are the colours of mid-20th century commodities. They are not scientific or naturalistic, hence the Dulux allusion. This is an industrial 1960s moment being played out again and again on the white walls of the Serpentine. Wonderfully thought-provoking, if you think about it in socio-historical terms. And the repetition, which so many modernists deploy in their work, as though to say,

It's one thing after another
makes the viewer aware how true this is, in our consumer culture; how relentlessly we are pressed to consider just this: one thing after another.

Kelly's goal here, it seems to me, is to focus on the space occupied and created by his objects their purity of form. This must be what creates the possibility for quiet contemplation. Honestly, if you're feeling stressed out, try this guy. He's better than a flotation tank. Boredom, monotony, and repetition are undervalued in our culture. You will find them here, and I don't mean that as a slight to the artist. Instead, I applaud his courage.

Meanwhile, the curator insists we consider Kelly's work in conceptual terms, how

the seriousness of the wall is subverted
how, Kelly himself has said,
Pictures should be the wall.
I could see that a white wavy sculpted line against a white wall made me look at the wall and admire its proportions. And I liked the topsy-turviness his idea was promoting. I believe conceptualists such as Rachel Whiteread call this
interrogating the space.
But, I couldn't help asking myself, why should we have reactions posited on information? In this instance, I didn't feel that Kelly, among one of our greatest artists though he may be, was saying anything terribly interesting. What he was doing was providing a space. And that was enough. Sometimes, a purely sensual response to art is enough.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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I often paint my own walls with Dulux - two coats is best and do the bottom three feet of the wall in a darker color so it does not show scuff marks. It is better than the anxiety of consumer society and of employing a decorater. What is your most relaxing color? Is it Serpentine green or is it Sargasso ? Which is greener?

Posted by: David williams at March 22, 2006 03:36 AM

I have long wondered about the degree of presciption or compensation in art, particularly in the use of colour.

Where I live in Afghanistan, some fairly sophisticated carpets have, to a Western eye, peculiar pallettes. Obviously South Asians prefer more colours and more vivid ones than would suit a Western aesthetic. But if you consider the natural vista available to a Turkoman nomad family -- all browns and greys and blacks, apart from blue sky and a few sparse specks of gray green vegetation -- the brash colours look more welcome and less jarring than they might in a Belgravia flat. Similarly, the dim lighting in a tent or yurt demands a brighter pallette in order for the object to be appreciated - your luxurious, 10,000-pound-sterling, late 19th C Yomud or Ashkabadi or Tekke was not made to be viewed under track lighting, no matter how good it may look there.

Lastly, of course, dull desert vistas perhaps inspire, as well as a welter of bright colours, what Western artists call the 'horror vacui,' or fear of empty space in art, that results in busy borders and proliferations of ornament often found in, say, a Persian or South Asian carpet.

So it is interesting to read how this author finds simple blocks of colour so refreshing after the assault on one's senses launched by modern, commercial cities. It has never occurred to me but I shall think of it when next in a London gallery.

Posted by: s masty at March 22, 2006 05:59 AM
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