In January I visited Boston's Museum of Fine Art to see the Ellsworth Kelly exhibit, Wood Sculpture (September 18, 2011- March 4, 2012) and I have been mulling it over ever since. The show included 19 of the 30 wood sculptures that he made between 1958 and 1996. I was anxious to see it to learn what Kelly, one of the most acclaimed living artists, had done with wood, particularly because I thought it would be interesting to see how he applied his trademark minimalist style to the medium.
So I saw, and I thought, and I looked some more, and I thought some more, and I read and reread all the reviews I could find on-line, and I talked to as many people as I could find that had also seen the show. The problem is, I didn't trust my own lack of enthusiasm for the show. I was concerned that I was missing something, that I just didn't know enough about art, or what the artist was doing, to really appreciate it. Though I honestly wanted to love the work, I couldn't convince myself to even like it and I was looking for reasons why. But then I came across this bronze Kelly sculpture, which is essentially the same form as three of the pieces in the show, and I realized what the problem is with this series of wood sculptures:
(Image taken from the Nasher Sculpture Center website)
He was using the wrong medium. The piece above I can appreciate. It is a minimalist form made with a medium that doesn't compete with it. It is one monotone color, a man-made material used to depict an artificial, man-made form. The two work together. The forms Kelly has created in this MFA show, on the other hand, compete with the medium. The more I look at the work, the more I wonder why he chose to make them out of wood. The best I can come up with is that he has a genuine appreciation for the medium and he thought, since he is an artist, he could make something with it. But then, he never took into account what the medium required, he just applied the same art he would make in any other medium and assumed it would work. I don't think it does.
Wood is different than most media that artists work with, it is a once living organism so it has variety and character. The grain pattern has its own designs and the tree has its own history. With minimalist sculpture these things need to taken into account because they stare the viewer directly in the face -- form and medium, nothing else.
For comparison, Kelly's work as got me thinking a lot about the Hank Gilpin show I saw at Gallery NAGA a couple of years ago. Gilpin's wood sculptures were also minimalist but were brilliant in their ability take the medium into account in constructing the sculpture (specifically, I'm referring to the last three images in this post). In them, he has used his considerable skill to let the beauty of the wood be at the forefront. They are understated in manipulation and design so that the visually power could come from the wood itself. There is no doubt in Gilpin's work why wood would be used, the work couldn't have been made with any other media. In contrast, Kelly's work seems stiff, industrial, and artificial. Though all these things may be worth capturing in art, I don't see why one would do it with wood. In this case the medium seems to be an irrelevant afterthought that was never taken into consideration in designing the work.
But look at the images yourself and tell me what you think, especially if you saw the show in person. Maybe I'm missing something, I'm happy to be proven wrong and even happier to come to appreciate the work.
As a side note, the museum, understandably, didn't allow photography but, unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a press pass either. Consequently, I took the images clandestinely. In some cases this resulted photographs from angles I didn't prefer, however, through a combination of persistence and luck, I was at least able to photograph everything in the show (though it took about five visits over three and a half hours).
These first five pieces are all relatively small, probably no more than 24 inches in any one direction. From what I've read, I think Kelly made the first three himself (but I'm not sure), all the others were fabricated by Peter Carlson, a well known and widely used fabricator for major contemporary artists.
Concord in Relief I
Form in Relief
Concord in Relief II
1978Regardless what can be said about the design of the above piece, I find the fabrication deeply troubling. I am really appalled that Kelly allowed it to be displayed with such an obvious defect, the tear-out in the bottom right corner of the top section. I'm not really sure how anybody could put this piece together and not notice or care about fixing it. Perhaps Peter thought that such a simple design could have been made by anyone and assigned it to an inexperienced staffer, but then didn't provide any oversight before shipped it off. And maybe Kelly thought it was too much trouble to ship it back. But really? With such a small and simple piece, all there is to see is the tear out (how could your eye go anywhere else?). Worse yet, I'm not even sure how it is possible to get this much tear out with walnut, it is such an easy wood to work. But even so, to fix it would have just taken a couple of minutes. Of course, one could make up some convoluted art-speak explanation about how it symbolizes such and such but since any explanation would be completely contrary to everything else Kelly has every created, the only reasonable explanation is amateurism and laziness -- not really something that you would expect from an artist of this caliber.
Concord in Relief II (closeup)
The piece below is the same design as at least one two tone painting he has done. I feel that this one could have definitely used two colors as well. Selecting two contrasting colored species would have at least added more interest to the work. I think that using the same design as a previous painting for this wood sculpture only highlights a problem with all of these pieces, the monotonous brown tones of the wood within this minimalist framework doesn't add to the design, it just makes it bland.
This untitled piece is the first of his large scale wood sculptures. Because of the guards, I wasn't able to get a straight on image but you can see a better one here.
The piece below was used in the promotion of the exhibit. It is also a similar design to some monochrome paintings and sculptures he has made. Again, in comparison, this piece doesn't really make any sense. In a monochrome, the design can be very soothing, but to make this out of wood they needed to glue about 13 different boards together (they didn't even take the time to match the color and grain, each board probably came from a different tree), creating a helter skelter image that competes with the form. Rather than soothing, this piece creates a lot of (I suspect unintentional) anxiety.
Curve in Relief IV
Concorde Relief IV
One thing I like about all of these floor sculptures is the brazen confidence it takes to create work that requires the displaying venue to drill holes in the floor.
The piece above is an elongated version of the form below.
Curve XXXVIII (side view)
Diagonal with Curve XVI
Interestingly, this piece, Curve XLIII, was the only one in which Kelly used a board with any figure. Unfortunately, even the beautiful quilting in this sapele doesn't really add anything to the piece as whole. The form and the medium still seem to be completely separate objects, irrelevant to one another.
1984Again, the design below seemed to be a good opportunity to highlight two different, complementary, shapes with two different colors, perhaps two different species but I think even better would have been to paint two different colors on wood. As it is, with one color, the piece just seems flat and boring, nothing more to hold one's interest other than the question, "why?"
Curve in Relief V
1984The more I thought about this last piece, a fifteen foot high, four(?) inch thick slab of redwood, the more I found it disturbing. Yes, it's monumental size is impressive, but when I think of the tree that the piece came from, I feel sadness and disappointment. He seems to have used an enormous and beautiful redwood tree for its size alone without adding anything. Out of any other material, stone, metal, glass, ceramics, plastic, it would be impressive, he would have created something from nothing, but here, he is taking something great and reduced it to something that is so much less. I think an apology is in order.
Untitled (second view)
What do you think?