Review | ‘Ellsworth Kelly at 100’: Sensational in more ways than one

When I close my eyes, I can still see the lemon sherbet hue of “Yellow Curve,” an eye-popping floor painting by Ellsworth Kelly. With any luck, I’ll see it in my dreams.

The painting is a slice of a circle running 25 feet along its radius and rising just one inch off the ground. First commissioned in 1990 for a museum in Frankfurt, Germany, “Yellow Curve” has been painstakingly reconstructed by Glenstone, a long-planned project overseen by the artist himself before his death in 2015. It’s the centerpiece of a career-spanning survey organized by the museum for the artist’s centennial.

Kelly made paintings so comically appealing that I find myself wishing I could dip into them with a spoon. The New York modernist served them by the scoop: rich, lustrous shaped canvases that delight in the play of color. Yet even for Kelly, “Yellow Curve” is an irresistibly dulcet piece. The painting is so luminous that its citrus glow is reflected, ever so deliciously, by the museum’s walls.

“Yellow Curve” alone would be worth the trip to see “Ellsworth Kelly at 100,” which assembles some 70 pieces made over as many years. Several works, including this yellow installation, are being shown for the first time in decades. The show is as notable for what it avoids as for what it includes. Glenstone doesn’t seek to paint the protean artist into a corner or bog down with theory what is so evident to the eye. The exhibition is assertive, attractive and straightforward — much like Kelly’s work.

Curated by Yuri Stone, an assistant curator at Glenstone, the survey takes as its starting point a 1949 painting — “Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris” — for which the artist joined two canvases for a single piece for the first time. During this early experimental period, when Kelly lived and studied in Paris with the support of the GI Bill, he also made “Seine” (1951), a blocky black-and-white painting that depicts the sun glittering on the river as pixelated squares. “La Combe II” (1951) is the first showstopper in “Ellsworth Kelly at 100”: a rhythmic oil painting that unfolds over nine wooden panels, hinged together like a screen.

Proceeding chronologically, the show traces Kelly’s playful explorations in space. The title for “Painting for a White Wall” (1952), a piece comprising five joined monochromatic panels in bold colors, suggests that not just any wall will do; here, the circumstances of the painting become part of the work. “Painting in Three Panels” (1956) takes the conceit further, with a set of three separate unjoined canvases making up a single indivisible artwork.

That’s more or less what visitors need to know about Kelly’s evolution, per this presentation. Another museum might overwhelm viewers by trying to situate Kelly within the genres of minimalism, color field painting and hard-edge abstraction; to its credit, Glenstone doesn’t stand in the way. Which is not to say that “Ellsworth Kelly at 100” doesn’t offer any context — it does — but rather that the museum prioritizes exacting experience over footnoted scholarship.

“Ellsworth Kelly at 100” includes a selection of photographs, for example, produced by the artist between 1950 and the late 1970s. Compositionally gorgeous, these silver gelatin prints show that an artist as true as Kelly could produce work that is inescapably his no matter the medium. The prints could be a show all their own. At Glenstone, they are a delectable offering, but not leveraged as evidence toward a hypothesis.

Another treat on view is a set of Kelly’s rarely-seen naturalist drawings. “Corn” (1959) and “Wild Grape” (1961) are among the simple, vivid watercolor studies that break his abstract concentrates. His realistic-looking stems hang in a blank void, so they’re not completely un-Kelly-like. But the artist’s touch, so often masked by his almost industrial approach to his bright-colored canvases, is right there on view for all the world to see.

There must be something in the water: In London, the Tate Modern is hosting a double-artist showcase that also explores the lesser-known naturalist works of two abstract pioneers. It seems that both Piet Mondrian’s jazz compositions and Hilma af Klint’s mystical pastels share at their root a late-19th-century theory about the natural world known as theosophy — or at least that’s the case the museum is making.

This is so often the move for big statement shows about abstraction: to find the germ, the pivot, the departure from nature and descent into the grid, as if abstract artists who elevate geometry must always nurture a more relatable secret garden. Even when it’s rooted in evidence, such a thesis risks an orthogonal view of the artwork.

Fortunately for Kelly admirers, Glenstone is more prone to indulgence. (It doesn’t hurt that the Pavilions, the Thomas Phifer-designed museum expansion that opened in 2018, look as though they were purpose-built to tee up Kelly’s work.) The relatively loose solo showcase looks much stronger here than the grouping of permanent-collection works that has occupied the space in the past — a much too normie approach for this museum.

For Glenstone, it’s not a problem to be solved that Kelly has never fit easily into any of the labels associated with the kind of reductivist work he excelled at making, whether with a brush, a camera or a fabricator. Instead, by giving Kelly this light and this space, the museum gives priority to sensation — the sheer bliss in finding an arc, repeated over many media, that lands every time.

Glenstone Museum, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac. 301-983-5001.

Dates: Through March 2024.

Prices: Free, but advance reservations are generally required. Visitors must be over 12. Those who arrive via the Ride On bus No. 301 do not need reservations.

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