Ellsworth Kelly at the Barnes Foundation

Ellsworth Kelly in front of 'Sculpture for a large wall' at the Barnes Foundation. (Emma Lee/Newsworks) One of the best perks about working at a cultural institution like the Barnes Foundation is that occasionally I get to do something really cool. Usually, it’s something like visit the conservation lab to see what masterpiece is being saved from certain doom by the dedicated team of conservators, or listen to a guest lecture for staff only, from scientists who have been studying the pigments in Le Bonheur de Vivre (also called the Joy of Life, by Matisse). Once, I even tied a bow-tie for Joe Rishel, the senior curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art who was attending a function and in need of some sartorial assistance.

But yesterday’s cool thing tops them all: I was privileged to spend part of the afternoon with living legend artist Ellsworth Kelly, who turns 90 next month. I had been asked by the chief curator at the Barnes if I could assist him as he autographed sixty copies of the catalog, Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall.

Sequestered in a small conference room on the administration floor, Ellsworth (nobody calls him Mr. Kelly) sat tethered to his oxygen generator, while I unpacked the books and placed copies of them in front of him for his signature. An assistant from his studio in Spencertown, NY, who had made the trip to Philadelphia with him, kept the flow moving— making sure he knew to which individual he should make the inscriptions, and blotting his signature so it didn’t smear on the beautiful “Kelly red” page opposite.

We weren’t alone, as various staffers at the Barnes swept in to give their congratulations, but it was a fairly intimate atmosphere. After he got settled into a routine, he started telling the story about his manifesto piece, Sculpture for a large wall, which anchors the show at the Barnes. The piece is 65 feet long and 11-1/2 feet high, and is made of two layers of shaped anodized aluminum panels.

Ellsworth Kelly, Sculpture for a large wall (MOMA installation view), 1957

Seen in an installation at MOMA, Kelly’s Sculpture for a large wall (1957). 1

In 1957, Ellsworth was approached by a lighting designer named Richard Kelly (no relation) to create a screen out of brass to divide the cafeteria line from the dining area in the Philadelphia Transportation Building restaurant. The lighting designer wanted something decorative that would complement his lighting fixtures, and Ellsworth obliged by creating a sort of prototype of Sculpture for a large wall. It was then suggested that he do a larger version for the lobby of the same building.

The screen Kelly designed for the restaurant of the Transportation Building.

The screen Kelly designed for the restaurant of the Transportation Building. 2

On a subsequent visit, Ellsworth was enraged to find someone from the restaurant had taped menu signs to his sculptural divider. He ripped them down himself, and sternly told them “this is ART!” Some time later, Ellsworth learned that his screen had been removed. Although he tried for years to find out what happened to them, he never found the pieces and assumes it was simply thrown out. (Are there any dumpster divers with a confession to make?)

Kelly's Sculpture for a large wall, in its original installation.

Kelly’s Sculpture for a large wall, in its original installation. 3

In its original setting at the Transportation Building, Sculpture for a large wall hung in the narrow lobby above the entrances to three banks of elevators. Although the facade was glass, it was bisected horizontally by a steel lintel, and vertically by several large columns. As such, a viewer could only see it from an odd angle, or partially obstructed from outside the building.

Years later, the building was moth-balled when its major tenants vacated. When Ellsworth heard about this, he was concerned about the fate of this important sculpture— and with good reason, considering what happened to the earlier incarnation. So he approached his friend, the late Anne d’Harnoncourt, who was then director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and wife of my aforementioned “bow-tie buddy” Joe Rishel) with an offer: since he had made Sculpture for a large wall for Philadelphia and wanted it to stay here, he gave her one year to find a suitable location to install it. Alas, no such location existed in Philadelphia, and eventually Ellsworth bought the piece back from the owners of the building. He then sold it to cosmetics-magnate Ronald Lauder, who promptly donated it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA).

The bad lighting in the MOMA installation caused distracting shadows.

The installation at MOMA was badly lit, which caused distracting shadows on the panels. 4

At MOMA, Ellsworth said he was under the impression that his huge sculpture would have a permanent home, properly displayed and lit. Unfortunately, he was dissatisfied with the space (columns again), and with the lighting, which threw harsh shadows onto the piece.

Asked what he thought about this installation at the Barnes Foundation, Ellsworth said, “it’s perfect. It’s exactly as I intended. And the lighting is just right.” He continued by saying that the Roberts Gallery at the Barnes where the work is installed looks like it was built specifically for the piece— long and high enough to accomodate it, but without any columns to obstruct the view. Chief curator Judith Dolkart explained to me how the shadowless lighting was achieved, through a computerized system of scrims and lights that were carefully adjusted to create the effect.

[mantra-pullquote align=”left” textalign=”center” width=”33%”]To hell with pictures – they should be the wall[/mantra-pullquote]Some of the panels show signs of wear (Ellsworth described pigeons nesting in it when he rescued it from the abandoned Transportation Building), and like any great star in Hollywood showing her age, one should never get too close. Having seen it for myself, I can tell you that it is beautiful. Although there are only four colors besides the bare aluminum, each panel’s tilt and the changing light creates an infinite array of hues.

My collages are only ideas for things much larger – things to cover walls. In fact all the things that I have done I would like to see much larger. I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long – to hang on walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures – they should be the wall – even better – on the outside wall – of large buildings. Or stood up outside as billboards or a kind of modern ‘icon’. We must make our art like the Egyptians, the Chinese & the African and the Island primitives – with their relation to life. It should meet the eye direct. tweet

So, after 56 years, the artist is finally satisfied with the way his monumental work is shown.  I heard him jokingly tell Judith Dolkart that she could keep it if she liked, to which she replied that she’d love to, but might have a hard time convincing MOMA to give it up!

Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the wall at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, May 4, 2013 – September 2, 2013. Tickets for the special exhibition are included with gallery admission. Booking tickets in advance is highly recommended.

Image sources:
  1. Museum of Modern Art
  2. Museum of Modern Art, Inside/Out
  3. Wrapit-Tapeit-Walkit-Placeit
  4. Flickr user William Hacker

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