Glance says plain geometry


closer look shows much more

January 03, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Those who think of Ellsworth Kelly's work as geometric, hard-edge abstraction with flat color and two-dimensional surfaces should see "Gray Curve," the 1987 lithograph in "Ellsworth Kelly: Selected Prints" at Sylvia Cordish (through Feb. 22).

On a plain white background sits one of Kelly's typical shapes, an elongated fan with two straight sides and one curved side. So far no surprises, but within the fan shape is a tumult of gestural strokes more reminiscent of de Kooning than classic Kelly.

The effect of this almost frantic activity is exaggerated by the cool, limiting geometric shape on the quiet white surrounding field. The overlay of strokes one upon another creates layers of illusionistic space that seem to continue endlessly. The contrapuntal play of black and white suggests flashes of light illuminating a night landscape.

The almost violent movement in all directions could be an abstract battle scene, though the vaguely mouth-like shape containing this movement can suggest an incoherent babble, and the abruptness of change from the gestural interior of this shape to the blank white field connotes the cacophony of life rounded by nothingness, giving the work an existential overtone.

To appreciate the extreme subtlety of this extraordinary print, contrast it with one of the prints that faces it on the opposite wall, "Cupecoy" (1984) from the Saint Martin Series. The scheme is basically the same, a three-sided shape filled with gestural strokes on a white field. But compared with "Gray Curve," the earlier effort seems so much more obvious as to be almost crude, if such a word could ever be applied to the work of so elegant an artist.

This small show contains only about a dozen prints, a tiny fraction of Kelly's output of more than 200. But it's more interesting than it looks at first glance, for it traces, episodically, a development over the past two decades or so from the familiar Kelly rectangles of flat color in "Blue with Black I" (1972-'74) to recent more gestural and emotional work.

"Amden" (1980) from the Series of Seven Lithographs juxtaposes a rectangle with a triangle, but the lines defining the shapes continue beyond the boundaries of the shape itself, as if in an effort to break free of the strict confines of geometry. In two prints from the Concorde series, "Square with Black" and "Diagonal with Black" (both 1982), the black has depth and sensuousness, and suggestions of black touch the white sheet. In the Saint Martin Series, the liquid-looking black with flickers of white in "Baie Rouge" suggests a moonlit night sea almost romantically.

Finally, after "Gray Curve" and not quite so deep, are two prints from 1988, "Gray Shape with Flat" and "Orange Shape, State I." These could almost be characterized as mood pieces, one contemplative and one reflecting a kind of subdued, ordered elation.

This show, while small, produces the typical effect of looking at Kelly's work. At first it seems so simple but gradually it reveals more complex, layered and meaningful levels.

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