Ellsworth Kelly had the misfortune of dying at the same time than Zaha Hadid and, maybe because of that reason, his death unfairly went slightly unnoticed. I am saying unfairly because Kelly is one of the true giants of contemporary art. I am using the word giant because that is the word the media have been deploying to monumentalise an Iraqi woman like Hadid who, as an architect, never delivered what she promised which from the very beginning of her career had to do with transforming aerial suprematism into architectural elevation. This means that although her intentions were serious, her hurry to please and monumentalize herself ended up with a series of buildings that claimed a dynamism that did not deliver.
By contrast, Kelly’s humility and work ethics was not only part of his artistic persona but it was also an inherent characteristic of his work. In an obituary written by Richard Serra and published by Artforum, the sculptor remembers when he first saw a photo of Ellsworth Kelly’s Colors for a Large Wall, painted in 1951. ‘I was both shocked and deflated’ he says. And adds: ‘Kelly had not laid out a grid on a canvas before hand. Instead he had juxtaposed separate panels, leaving no visible brushwork. It also appeared that the colored modules were arranged by chance – another zinger. This was not domestic picture making, not an enlarged easel painting. The ambition of the scale was architectural’. This coming from Serra, who believes that architecture has not done its job, means a lot.
By creating those huge coloured compositions, Kelly altered that phenomenological relation through perception. But unlike other artists who transformed perception into their medium (James Turrell or Robert Irwin to give just two examples), Kelly distilled the act of looking so as to turn it into the foundation of a kind of work that challenged the eye of the viewer to the point of having to deconstruct its relationship with the piece. In other words, while Turrell turned perception into a spectacle, Kelly turned it into a problem that could only be explored through action and in which cognition and perception never coincide. Ellsworth Kelly has died but his artistic legacy is truly monumental. J A T