There isn’t any other work of art in the NCMA that I’ve seen singlehandedly accumulate more flak than Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Panel. You know, the nine-foot-tall, eight-foot-wide blue canvas sitting at the end of a hallway that people like to look at very briefly and continue walking past? That one.
Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Panel, 1980, oil on canvas, 109 1/2 x 95 in., Gift of Mary and Jim Patton in honor of Lawrence J. Wheeler
I mean, at a certain point, you have to know that if those kids in art class—who make works that have 50 layers of dubious meanings stacked on top of each other like some metaphorical papier-mâché—can’t get a read on it, then something’s up. This is art that manages to render even them
So why do works by Ellsworth Kelly that are so fundamentally similar show up in so many major art museums? I mean, it’s just a massive, monochromatic shape sitting behind fancy metal barriers, right?
Well, yes and no.
Quintessential to understanding Kelly’s work is that its power is not in what you see; heck, looking at the image above doesn’t do anything for you, most likely. (It sure doesn’t for me.) What he wants to do is transform art into an almost spiritual experience. In a sense the only way to truly comprehend Kelly’s work is to stand before it and really take a look at what it is. It’s a giant form. It dwarfs you; it overwhelms you. Indifference stems from simply accepting what is at face value, and art should never, ever be viewed as such.
Kelly’s work, after all, is not something that can be appreciated on the level of simply breezing through images of his work in Google search results. More often than not, that’s why modern art can’t be appreciated on the same level as works by artists like da Vinci, which are instantly commendable with just a quick glance. Kelly’s all about form and shape, and to truly see his work, you have to actually stand in front of it and give it a chance.
In interviews Kelly emphasizes not simply the act of seeing, but perceiving, which he deems “a special way of looking.” Perceiving, of course, is to become consciously aware of something. It’s not just giving something a glance and thinking “This is boring.” That’s just good-old looking, and that’s what leaves people so dumbfounded by his work.
Even if his work may border on being pretentious, it’s worth pointing out that Kelly firmly believed his canvases were anything but. Quintessential to his body of work is a detachment from the process. He’s not making the argument that he’s doing something you couldn’t; he doesn’t even leave any visible sign of his own handiwork on the canvas, instead keeping it foreign.
“I want to eliminate the ‘I made this’ from my work.”
It’s the rejection of trying to give himself a signature, and his deconstruction of what art should be, that makes his art so distinctive. Ironically his disinterest in signature actually gave him his signature, in a way, and helped him redefine what art is.
After all, how could we have jumped from splatter paintings to sharks jammed into formaldehyde-filled tanks if not for a few other art rebels to work against their times?