One remembers being seated behind the other students of a first grade classroom, fascinated by the cheap jars of paint in front of a large piece of smooth white paper, attached to its easel by a metal clip.
Dipping the paintbrush into the yellow jar, wiping away the extra paint, and then applying bold and vigorous strokes of the brush in all directions, swishing the thick yellow across and down the paper, abandoning rational thought and technique until every inch of the paper was covered. The thickness of the paint made the paper curl at its edges, but the paint did not crack.
After staring at this raw creation of pure yellow energy, one noticed the first grade teacher approach. She mumbled a few words and proceeded to rip the paper into dozens of pieces and then, just as forcefully, throw the ripped fragments into the garbage. And walk away.
This yellow painting remains in the mind’s eye, as does an all-blue painting that was created a month or so before. The paintings, and the ideas behind the paintings, survive long after the actions of this teacher were laid to rest.
For this reason, Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings from his ‘Singular Forms’ exhibit evoke more of a response than the paintings warrant. Two issues are at work here: the solid, uniform color of each of the canvases and the unlikely shapes of the canvases, retreating from the conventional and taken-for-granted rectangular shape and introducing tilts and curves.
Kelly’s canvases pale next to the bright orange of The Gates exhibit in Central Park from a few years ago. The bright yellow of Yellow Place, an acrylic painting from 1966 that is 75 x 75 inches, is subdued by comparison because of its more modest size, but is still pleasant to look at.
Most young painters, when standing over a palette of bright colors, lose a lot of chroma by the time they mix their paint and apply the resulting mush to canvas. The colors become dull and muddy, victims of subtractive mixing. And even when the colors that one would see outdoors are rich with chroma, the untrained eye will add browns and blacks to their mixtures indirectly (using earth colors like burnt sienna for a skin tone instead of cadmium orange, for example).
So it is rare to see paintings with large areas of bright color, which is what most of us in the artistic community have wanted to create since being exposed to that first box of Crayola Crayons. Kelly’s paintings are satisfying in this way.
The second issue, the shape of the canvases, is dependent upon the personal aesthetic of the viewer.
The shapes of these canvases are so slightly removed from their rectangular predecessors that one is able to imagine the original rectangular shape, even in its absence. This is where taste enters the discussion. If the shapes were more emotionally energized, bursting free from the wooden prison bars of their rectangular stretchers, Kelly would have created more movement and more energy, but he would have lost the rectangle. This way, by having the two curves of his blue painting the same size, for example, the vertical tilt of the imaginary rectangle is preserved.
The shapes become inhibited, however, quietly struggling to break free. Who knows whether Ellsworth Kelly, who also curated this exhibit as he approaches his 90th birthday, even thought about this issue. Instead of shapes appearing within the paintings, the shapes become the paintings.
Mnuchin Gallery explains the ‘singular forms’ of this exhibit from a contrasting point of view:
“Inspired by both the natural and constructed worlds, his abstract visual language evokes the arches of a Romanesque cathedral, the leaves of a grapevine, the rolling hills of a snowy landscape, and the silhouettes of Matisse’s cutouts. Bridging the spaces between European modernism, Color field painting, and Minimalism, Kelly’s deeply personal style achieves a distinctive timelessness.”
One feels as if one is looking at an artistic version of a Rorschach test, in which one can see whatever is triggered by the individual’s active imagination and associations.
None of the works of this exhibit inspires the long contemplation that great works of art command. Ironically, one notices detail in the shadows on the wall to the side of each painting and below. The shadows are divided into clear layers; the patterns of which are almost as interesting to look at as the paintings themselves.
The paintings are not framed. They have no place to hide, unlike other paintings that spring to life with a frame to surround it, while looking amateurish without one.
The exhibit is recommended, but don’t stay long. Once the initial surprise wears off, the mind wanders elsewhere, deserting the paintings as they become more gimmick than art.
Unlike the typical exhibition space, these paintings are living in what looks like someone’s sparsely decorated home, and given the spacious interior and high ceilings, one imagines many of the gallery’s visitors wishing they could live there as well–with or without the paintings.
Mnuchin Gallery is located at 45 East 78 Street in Manhattan. The phone number is 212-861-0020 and the website is www.mnuchingallery.com.