For all his unswerving abstraction, Ellsworth Kelly's art is concrete at its core. An exhibition, "Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective," at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum here through Jan. 15, makes abundantly clear this essential reality. Among more than 250 works spanning 50 years, the show includes the modern master's ink drawings of plants as well as his black-and-white photographs of landscape and architecture. Their presence allows us to see the kernels of fact from which Kelly's art grew.
"Ellsworth Kelly is one of the most influential American artists of the postwar era," according to Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation. "He has played a pivotal role in the development of abstract art in this country."
Nature and architecture are a storehouse of analogy and symbol for Kelly. He winnows observed details down to flat, geometric forms - a bare minimum that implies volumes. For all its apparent simplicity and order, this art blossoms behind the eye into both clarity and complexity.
In a telephone interview from his home in upstate New York, Kelly wished to set the record straight about the impetus behind his work. "My paintings and sculptures begin by drawing and collage studies. In a recent review of my retrospective at the Guggenheim, it was incorrectly stated that my work is 'photo-derived abstraction.' The occasional photograph I've taken shows how I perceive forms in nature, but I've never made paintings from photographs."
The preliminary studies on display do shed light on his creative process. In the painting, "Black Ripe" (1955), for example, a bulging black shape occupies most of a white canvas like a pod about to burst.
The swelling form recalls the shape of leaves in Kelly's ink drawing "Briar." In his oil paintings, instead of using color to delineate form, color is form.
The exhibition reveals how all of a piece is Kelly's vision. Whether photographing a barn as a triangular roof over a grid of rectangular doors or reducing a sneaker to a wedge-shaped line drawing, Kelly flattens his subjects into their underlying geometry.
"All my work comes from perceiving," Kelly says. "I kept seeing things that were brooding in me." He adds, "I'm not a geometric artist.
"Geometry is moribund. I want a lilt and joy to art. My forms are geometric, but they don't interact in a geometric sense. They're just forms that exist everywhere, even if you don't see them."
Kelly contrasts his abstract style to Renaissance paintings that create the illusion of three dimensions, so "the viewer goes to the surface of the painting and then goes into the world of the painting."
His work also differs from the flamboyant gesture and aggressive brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism, where, Kelly says, "your eye goes to the surface and you stay on the surface." Instead, "I'm interested in the space between the viewer and the surface of the painting - the forms and the way they work in their surroundings. I'm interested in how they react to a room."
Kelly's major contribution to abstract art is his creation of paintings that engage the room, becoming an equal part of the architecture by converting the wall into background. In a double-height gallery at the Guggenheim, five paintings with names like "Green Curve" (1996) slice across white walls. Each shaped canvas in a single color seems to cavort in space, thrusting upward toward the soaring ceilings. It's as if the gallery is a giant Calder mobile that vibrates with chromatic energy.
"I want to use the architecture," Kelly explains. "I'm interested in how the paintings work together and how these colors relate to you. If you feel an emotion, I want it to be mysterious." Whether or not the viewer responds, the artist says, "It moves me very much."
Kelly's monochrome curves and wedges and parallelograms function as autonomous objects rather than signs pointing to a particular message.
"Their content is form and color," Kelly says. "It's not about politics, or a pretty face, or sex - although all these things are subliminally in there."
Kelly suppresses brushstrokes and evens out pure colors so the effect is of a unified object without one specific focal point. The eye takes in each form as a whole. "The surface is relatively quiet," Kelly explains, "so color and form can speak outside the canvas."
The works that interest Kelly most are his recent sculptures - bare metal steles resembling solidified calligraphic strokes. After he left New York City in 1970 to live in the country, he began to make large-scale sculptures, which continue to occupy him. He says his most recent paintings and sculptures "show where I am at that moment. I like being in between, which is where I always want to be. I'm not interested in finished things. I want an open situation."
Kelly prefers abstraction to figurative painting, because "if you see a figure in a painting, you say that's what it is, and that's it." As opposed to such a limited perspective, with abstract paintings, "the sources are obscured. It's not a question of what they mean but how they are perceived."
From 1948 to 1954, Kelly worked in Paris on the GI Bill, where he studied Byzantine art, Romanesque churches, and art by modernist innovators like Matisse, Picasso, Jean Arp, and Sophie Tauber-Arp. "Although I reacted very much to the School of Paris, I decided I had to do something completely different," he says. "I took clues" from French influences, he says, but decided "I would give up the element of personality in Expressionist paintings and do impersonal wood reliefs." He "looked outside for ideas," basing early work on a distillation of Parisian building motifs.
When Kelly returned to New York in 1954, "I had finished my apprenticeship," he says. "My paintings got bigger and very joyful. There was a burst of color," which he incorporated into large unitary forms that invade the viewers' space.
With his shaped canvases consisting of inseparable form and color, Kelly made "a single form with the wall as ground." In his view, "the paintings are about freedom. The paintings demand their own space."
The Guggenheim exhibition juxtaposes Kelly's assertive curves against Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral architecture. A notoriously difficult venue for showing art, in this case the museum's ramps have met their match. The bright cutout colors float with a "voluptuousness" (a favorite word for the artist) of sheer delight. The show is Kelly's sixth and most complete museum retrospective in the last quarter century - an indication of his importance in the pantheon of contemporary art.
Although the paintings exist as eye-catching objects in space, Kelly hopes viewers will perceive another dimension as well. "All good art is spiritual," he says. "What else are the paintings, if not spiritual? I want some clarity, beauty, or joyfulness."
Like Matisse, who said his hand was an arm of the spirit, Kelly says, "I'm a lens really. I'm giving back what I respond to in nature."
His art starts with "honest perception of things." Through investigating what he sees, he creates works that show "how everything in the world relates together."