Art Review: ‘Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009’

“Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009” includes seven examples of geometric abstractions by the 90-year-old painter. (Photo by Jerry L. Thompson)

Ellsworth Kelly, who turned 90 in May, probably deserves a big sheet cake — that is, a giant retrospective — somewhere. But he will have to settle for something smaller. A handful of tiny, cupcake-like shows — from Washington to New York City — celebrate the abstract artist’s work. With the “Ellsworth Kelly: Colored Paper Images” from the National Gallery of Art, there are modest showcases of Kelly’s art in Philadelphia Barnes Foundation and at the modern Art Museum.

Perhaps the sweetest of these little treats is the two-gallery exhibition that the Phillips Collection has curated. Barely seven pieces – each with its own wall – ‘Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009’ is a fitting celebration of an artist known for his cleanly minimalist geometric abstraction. The work is sober, even austere. And yet it sings.

If you are looking for lyricism, this is not for you. The works in the exhibition, at first glance, seem almost machine-made. Painted in monochromatic industrial colors, the surfaces are featureless, as if painted by a robot. There is not a single visible brushstroke among them.

Kelly’s art has never been about surface or pictorialism, but rather about form and color, reduced to their essence. One piece, “Green Blue Black Red”, consists of four rectangular panels, in the aforementioned hues, hung left to right, in irregular sizes. The green rectangle is with a horizontal orientation; the others are vertical. They are not windows. There are no grand pictorial gestures. There isn’t even any content.

They are more like colorful pieces of painted sheet metal, hung on the wall to dry before someone comes and welds them together into a square fixture.

Like all work in the show – in fact, like most of Kelly’s work – “Green Blue Black Red” is not meant to be experienced intellectually or emotionally, but rather purely visually. It bypasses two of the main ways we’re used to digesting art – through the brain or through the heart – leaving only the eyes. (Anyone interested in Kelly’s softer side would do well to check out the National Gallery exhibition, which also features geometric works but on handmade paper and with deliberately imprecise, bleeding edges of color.)

Almost all of Kelly’s other works at the Phillips feature two stacked panels, one superimposed on the other: white on black, black on white, yellow on red, purple on white, and red on white. They are like sandwiches, where the top slice of bread is a completely different size and color than the bottom, creating a mismatched whole.

More sculpture than painting, these works show Kelly at her best, creating subtly striking forms that evoke both architecture and nature. Only one work, “Purple Curve in Relief”, presents something other than a straight line. Yet with its soft, almost imperceptible arc, the show’s most delicate object is also its most powerful.

This pull takes a while to feel. It’s not love at first sight. It’s all too easy to walk into ‘Panel Paintings’ and come out right away, dismissing the work as cold and unconvincing.

Give the little show a chance, though, and it might start growing on you. Not because it stimulates the mind or stirs the heart, but because it nourishes the eye.

That’s reward enough.