Ellsworth Kelly is still the king of colour — Waldemar Januszczak’s just not sure the new ones are working for him
Newman borrowed his title, of course, from Edward Albee’s fearsome play about a demented married couple who couldn’t agree on Virginia Woolf or anything else. The play had just been made into a splendidly quarrelsome film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. So Newman was borrowing ready-made impact when he paraphrased it, and some sexiness, and some sass. But what’s really good about his title is the taunting of the spectator that it dares to attempt. The answer to “who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue?” is evidently not Newman himself. He has dared to make a picture out of nothing else. But what about you, Mr and Mrs Joe Average, looking at his work in a gallery? Can you handle the fact that all you are getting is three slabs of colour? Are you tough enough to take your art this pure? I was thinking about some of this as I went round the Ellsworth Kelly display at the Serpentine Gallery, not because Kelly is another abstract American tough guy, taunting the spectator with his purity, but precisely because he isn’t. His paintings feature large expanses of colour, arranged in simple rectangles, and that’s about it. But they are definitely not tough pictures. They don’t boss you around arrogantly, as Newman’s do. We’re not penetrating to art’s DNA. Kelly’s paintings are gentle, elegant, lyrical and, above all, impure. That’s what is really puzzling about them.
Try to give one of Kelly’s pictures a title in the style of Newman and you’ll end up wittering on for paragraphs. Who’s afraid of the sort of blue you get in a Mediterranean sky at a sun-drenched midday in August, a black as dark as the last niche in the final cave in the deepest underground system in the Dordogne, a sort of reddy- purple that has some brown in it, too, and that manages to have a heraldic presence, as if it might feature in the coat of arms of a Burgundian prince, or even the king? It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it? Eighteen of Kelly’s offerings have now been dotted around the elegant interiors of the Serpentine, but you’ll think there are fewer of them than that. His art has an innate modesty to it, a lightness of presence. The pictures are big enough, but they are just not shouty. Their colours are too nuanced to deliver knockout blows. And the entire ensemble manages to avoid that atmosphere of piety you usually get when basic geometry is combined with flat areas of colour.
Think, perhaps, of Matisse’s paper cutouts instead. That jauntiness of theirs. The links they maintain with the nursery. That tonal relationship they enjoy with poster colours.
Kelly tries for similarly witty and playful moods. His stuff charms its way onto the walls, nowhere more so than in the four coloured quavers — a blue one, a red one, a green one and a black one — that trip across the whites of the central rotunda. It’s a kiddie melody set to colour. And after a while, it annoyed me, in the way that morris dancers annoy me. Surely there comes a time when a man should act his age? Kelly is 82, one of the grandees of American art, a national treasure who seems to have been around for ever. His twinkling contributions to the many blue-chip displays he has been in, from full-scale retrospectives at the Tate to big-time showcasing in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, can be relied on to deliver an elegant set of abstract flavours. This is his first British showing for more than a decade, but there’s nothing portentous about it. His work looks thoroughly at home in the airy interiors of the Serpentine, and speaks to the tearoom in this former tearoom.
All the new paintings have been made since 2002. Kelly gave up dramatic change several decades ago, so the show contains what you would expect it to contain: various arrangements of coloured rectangles; the occasional shaped canvas attached jauntily to its wall; and some all-white pictures, making a rather unconvincing stab at extra purity. Where others’ all-white paintings feel austere, as if the artist has denied himself something, Kelly’s are white in that particularly painless way expensive furniture is white.
The largest group of new works is made from pairs of overlapping canvases. Thus, a black vertical will have a white horizontal attached to it; an upright red is crossed by a lying-down yellow; a green traverses a blue. The catalogue reveals that the original inspiration for these big overlaps was a dock Kelly sat in, in the 1950s, in which the huge hulls of the multicoloured ships would cross each other slowly in the water. Once this has been pointed out to you, it is, indeed, easier to notice how the overlapping canvases seem to be sliding past one another ever so slowly. There is movement here, and bulk. And the fact that these seemingly abstract sights have an underlying figurative origin is entirely typical of Kelly’s work.
But I also felt something awkward, and even ungainly, in the overlapping pictures. Kelly’s art can usually be relied upon to be just so: impeccably balanced. Here, however, it’s too easy to see exactly how one canvas has been stuck onto another. It’s like watching a magic trick in which the explanation of how it’s done is the first thing you’re confronted with. Magic gets difficult after such blunt revelation.
So the overlaps and the dancing quavers feel like efforts to do something differently. A really typical Kelly painting would be content to stack three bands of colour, one on top of another, and to put most of its creative effort into the choice of hues. I can see how churning those out for 50 years, as Kelly has been doing, might begin to feel limiting. But it is only when he returns to this reliable formula in the second half of the show that his undoubted brilliance as a colourist is properly revealed. The stacks of shifty colours seem immediately to speak of deeper things, in a lower key. Kelly, at his worst, is the Dufy of minimalism: slight, charming, breezy. At his best, he isn’t a minimalist at all, but a kind of Rothko with a ruler. You get both versions of him here.
Carl Andre, who is on show at Sadie Coles HQ, is younger than Kelly. He is only 70. But it isn’t his lack of years that stops him from becoming a national treasure as well. Andre simply isn’t cut out for the job. He’s too uncouth, too hard-core, too tough. His minimalism is too impolite to be entrusted with any kind of ambassadorship of American aesthetics.
Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine a more aggressive display of reductivism than the one arranged for us at Sadie Coles. All that has been added to a white and empty gallery is an arrangement of black cubes pressed up against the wall and heading into the corner. They have a charcoal-y look to them, and are actually squares of graphite. The pattern in which they are arranged involves a diminishment in numbers as they approach the corner. That’s it. That’s the show.
I did all the usual things you should do in minimalism exhibitions, and wandered backward and forward in front of the thing for ages, searching for crumbs of meaning. Slowly, they revealed themselves, as they always do with Andre’s work. The black of the graphite has a particular density to it. It’s impossible to judge its weight. Is it heavy as lead, or light as a pencil? Your feet are dying to know. Most art addresses the eye. Who’s Afraid of This Really Dense Black speaks straight to the nerve endings on the bottom of your soles.