otrt of everyday life. And yet his art somehow looks every inch a modest. democratic. everyday American sort. As the writer James Baldwin once said. he has ‘a peculiarly American combination of the hedonistic and the puritanical‘. And as Kelly has himself confessed: ‘I really don‘t understand anything btrt America.‘
Kelly lirst studied fine art after the war. in Boston. but the ()1 Bill of Rights gave him — as it did a whole generation — the opportunity to study abroad. and he chose Paris. He stayed there from l948 to 1954 and it was the making of him: he met the surrealist Jean Aip and his abstract painter wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp: he met the musician John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham: and he lost himself in the city‘s historical museums.
lirom all these experiences — not least his love of ancient art and architecture — Kelly learnt his profound belief in the communicating power of shapes. symbols and colour. But when he came to set pen to paper he was a modernist through and through. His masters were Picasso and Matisse: from the former he learnt the lessons of cubism. which gave him his special sensitivity to the placement of figure on ground. of shapes on surfaces: from the latter he learnt about the emotional resonances of colour: and both men taught him how to animate the inanimate. Stand before Kelly’s simple shapes and you‘ll see they pulsate. shimmer and quiver ambivalently between one configuration and another.
When Kelly arrived back in New York in 195-1 he was well on his way to being fully formed as an artist. His contemporaries would have been abstract expressionists — figures such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Soon he would be surrounded by pop artists as well: figures such as Jasper Johns and Roy Lichstenstein who he knew personally and felt close to as an artist. Kelly‘s art. however. eluded both the macho heroics ofexpressionisrn and the camp irony of pop. His work has come to be described by the short-hand term ‘har'd-edged abstraction‘. but he even felt unhappy with that fairly neutral description: he didn’t set out to paint edges. he said. they just happen.
All this slippery evasion of schools and movements notwithstanding. today Kelly looks every bit a classic American. The neat arcs and bold motifs of his pictures suggest a superior signage. the clever power of good
design. And they have the grand scale his compatriots adore: Kelly once heard the British art critic Herbert Read lecture on the idea that the small scale easel painting was dead. and he was deeply impressed by the notion. For him. painting‘s new challenge was to take on architecture. and indeed. his best work anirnates the dimensions of an entire room.
The works on show this month at the lngleby Gallery may be small scale prints. but Kelly's command of his art makes them essential nonetheless (Barnett Newman’s painting depends on human scale even more than Kelly's. and yet critics have enormous respect for his prints). Neither should we regard Kelly as outdated: even in this. his 80th year: he still commands the r‘epect of young artists.
But. while Kelly‘s name is one that contemporary painters and sculptors alike salute. especially if they are colourists. tracking his influence is a harder matter. His is such an economical method that. at least in formal. practical terms. it is hard to take anything from his art without robbing it in its entirety. His most important legacy is probably in showing a middle way between old liurope‘s quasi—mystical belief in art‘s power. and America‘s pragmatism. its zesty enjoyment of everyday life. It‘s this balance that one still finds
and Jim Lambie.
Typically. Batchelor‘s work takes the form of a coloured lightbox set in a dirty. ramshackle frame. Sometimes he builds his boxes up in a tower. sometimes he leaves the lights running along the floor on little trolleys. The dirt of the street is important in these. but so too is the entrancing power of the light. Larnbie maintains a similar balance. though it may not be so explicit. In his work. which can take every form from psychedelic floor designs to suggestive. craft-based sculptures. the everyday appears as a kind of bracing comedy or kooky nostalgia. But for all the phlegrnatic spirit of his humour. the insistent presence of colour in his work clearly derives from a belief — just like Kelly's — that colour does strange things to us. things you can‘t quite account for. And while it does that. lillsworth Kelly is likely to remain a good deal more than r'elevent.
Ellsworth Kelly is at the lngleby Gallery, Edinburgh from Wed 28th Jan - Sat 6th Mar.
in artists like David Batehelor
Ellsworth Kelly has spent the past 50 years making simple coloured canvases at a time when plenty of other artists have been more interested in concepts than chromatics. But recently, a group of younger practitioners have begun to share Kelly’s interest in the colour of things.
I Jim Lambie
He has wowed audiences all over the world with his fIOOr installations made from coloured tape which create a psychedelic map of the gallery space. But Lambie's lesser known works. exploring his tWin interests of the pop business and the articulation of space. are also wrapped up in a passion for colour.
I David Batehelor
CoIOur is a Vital component of this Dundee-born artist's work. He makes lightboxes. or other intensely-coloured Surfaces. framed by pieces of industrial detritus. ll yOu're not sure what it's all abOut. check out Batchelor's book. C/iromophob/a. on the relationship between colour and ideas.
I Ian Davenport With recent shows at DCA and the lngleby Gallery. Ian Davenport's work has had plenty of exposure in Scotland recently. His pictures are made by pouring h0usehold gloss paint onto canvases and letting gravity do its work — With a little intervention along the way — to create striking compositions in which coloor is the key component. I Roddy Buchanan Although better known for his work on expressions of identity in sport. Buchanan produced a brilliant expressron of colour in his Video piece "Soda Streain'. A succession of bottles full of briglitly-coIOure(l fix/y Jriice are dropped on a concrete floor. bursting like at Jackson Pollock action painting.
22’ .Jan 55 let) 90041 THE LIST 21