Any exhibition of Ellsworth Kelly’s art is a bittersweet event following the artist’s recent death, a postmortem reflection on a masterful legacy. And so, the curator must strike a balance between two contrapuntal melodies, those of celebration and grief.
Photographs at Matthew Marks, a harmonious coda for Kelly, was co-organized by the artist shortly before his death on December 27 at the age 92, and is a novel exploration of a medium he rarely receives attention for: photography.
Kelly started photographing in the 1950s, using a borrowed Leica before buying his own a decade later. The exhibition primarily focuses on the period during which he photographed barns on Long Island and their interlocking structures. In the 1970s, he tended to photograph architectural details as he traveled from Europe to his home in upstate New York.
Although some may say that Kelly uses the camera to simply record nature, Photographs reveals something more complex: he handles the camera not as an intermediary eye, but as an organizational tool. His compositions are meticulous and topographical; mathematical to the point of orthodoxy, his photography reveals an idiosyncratic taste for symmetry, clarity, and crispness as opposed to any reverence for abstraction for abstraction’s sake.
Oftentimes, he shifts our gaze away from architecture and nature and into the shadowy void. Through Kelly’s eye, these shadows become geometric signs pointing toward an argument that modernism’s true basis lies in reality. The influence of Kazimir Malevich’s black square on Kelly is pervasive. The best example is “Doorway Shadow, Spencertown,” which seems to riff on works exhibited in Malevich’s 0.10 exhibition while playing with a Byzantine abstraction of space and depth that Malevich himself explored.
Kelly’s fascination for monochrome is part of his larger interest in color palette, a favorite puzzle for artists associated with the Color Field movement. In his early work, he only painted white reliefs. Soon, black entered his palette. As the artist once said in conversation with Agnes Gund, “Color is a need.” What often drives his work, however, is a desire to capture and elevate form, to celebrate the compositions already visible in the world around him. This is especially evident in photographs like “Under the Boardwalk, Long Island” and “Curve seen from a Highway, Austerlitz.” Using a high exposure, Kelly increases the contrast in his photographs, ensuring that we focus on form rather than content. The texture and details of landscape ebb to shape, demonstrating how our eye follows geometry before anything else. With the exception of one photograph, the sky is always rendered in pure white, a canvas awaiting the readymade assemblages of toolsheds and farmhouses. This is abundantly clear in “Barns, Long Island,” in which Kelly combines the different sections of the building to create an imposingly fractured image.
For Kelly, photography was the medium of experimentation. True, many of his photographs unsurprisingly bear a modernist’s eye for architecture (see “Hangar Doorway, St. Barthélemy”). Occasionally, however, Kelly veers in unexpected directions, like “Brach and Shadow, Spencertown,” which depicts a curved branch reaching over the snow, combining with its shadow to form a heart. Although he often deploys the hallmarks of rigid abstraction and geometry, his photography reveals a familiar and almost contagious delight in the incidental forms of nature.
If anything, Photographs at Matthew Marks reminds us that Kelly had an incomparable eye for the world. He was grounded by a hunch that nature and artifice aren’t so diametrically opposed, but are two sides of the same coin. By capturing the flux within such a relationship, Kelly’s photography becomes a reckoning force of reality.
Ellsworth Kelly: Photographs continues at Matthew Marks (523 West 24 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 30.