The American painter Ellsworth Kelly is now in his early eighties, but his recent work, now on display at the Serpentine Gallery, is fresh and vigorous and exactingly concentrated. Kelly works on the borderline between painting, collage, cut-out and sculpture. Some of his new works take the form of delicately shaped monochrome canvases, slices of pure unmodulated colour – blue, red, green, black – that seem fleetingly to evoke buried memories of how a place or an object once looked, to the artist, on a particular day. Others are formed from rectangular canvases painted in different colours and laid, one on top of the other, in arrangements that suggest fragments of remembered landscape. Sparest of all are a couple of white-on-white creations, in which the artist has used the same collage-like technique – laying one canvas on top of another – to draw a precisely calculated curve in void space. These works might be said to resemble snow-covered mountains but can also conjure up the elliptical form of a planet – or the moon, perhaps – seen against the expanse of the sky.
The teasing ambiguity is deliberate. Kelly has described his pictures as “memories that haven’t quite gelled”, which suggests that he likes them to hover somewhere between the recognisable and the unfathomable. He himself often does not know exactly where his sources of inspiration lie, or only discovers them years after a particular picture has been painted. This was a pattern set early on in his career. When he was a young man he showed a group of his collages to the French painter and sculptor Jean Arp, who asked him why, in one work, he had chosen to juxtapose a particular orange with a particular pink. Kelly replied, with some embarrassment, that he really had no idea. It was only years later that he realised he had been inspired to do so by the same combination of colours in a fourteenth-century Sienese panel painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – a picture that he had spent a whole summer copying when he was a student at the Art School there.
Kelly’s attachment to the idea that art might an arena where buried memories resurface suggests that he has a certain affinity with the Surrealists – who also had a great deal of time for subconscious creative thought. In fact, although various attempts have been made to confine Kelly within an all-American tradition – during the course of his long career he has been labelled, among other things, a Hard-Edge Abstractionist and even a Minimalist – his work has its deepest roots in the broader traditions of modern European painting.
Kelly was born in 1923 and his art education began when, along with thousands of other GIs serving in Europe, he received a US-Army-issue copy of an improving book called A Treasury of Art Masterpieces . After the war he spent a few years as an art student in Boston before going to live in Paris, where many of those “art masterpieces” were to be found, and where he spent six formative years of his life. He designed fabrics for Pierre Balmain, visited museums almost every day and dreamed of creating timeless but forcefully primitive-looking pictures: “We must make our art like the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the African island primitives,” he wrote to his friend, the composer of experimental, aleatory music, John Cage. “It should meet the eye – direct.”
I have only met once Kelly myself, in New York a few years ago, and when I did I was struck by how fresh the memory of the years he spent in Paris as a young man still were. In particular, he told a wonderful story about how, having befriended certain members of the Monet family, he was invited to Giverny to visit the late great Impressionist’s studio. The place was virtually a ruin, he remembered – this was long before it had been tarted up and turned into a tourist destination – with most of its windows broken and pigeon-droppings all over the floor. Rolled up against the wall were a number of the late, panoramic paintings of waterlilies produced by Monet in his later years – works which were still regarded as unsaleable eccentricities at the time. As he unrolled one after another, Kelly was bowled over by them. He remembered one in particular, an all-white canvas of waterlilies under snow, some twenty feet across – a painting which has never been seen since, and must be presumed destroyed. Kelly also told me that he recalled going back to new York, just a few years later, and visiting Jackson Pollock’s first one-man exhibition. He was impressed, but could not help feeling that Monet’s long panoramic paintings were the more considerable achievement.
Kelly’s recent works seem full of trace memories of the art that moved him, more than half a century ago, on his early travels through Europe. Some of his shaped canvases are reminiscent of the biomorphic shapes of Arp’s collages and constructions, others evoke the cut-outs of Henri Matisse, while an elegant sliver of a sculpture in pure white, entitled Totem , resembles the endless columns of Brancusi. But the artist’s colour sense, his fondness for pitting blacks against reds and maroons, or fizzing yellows against dazzling greens, is utterly distinctive and entirely his own.
Some of the most vibrant paintings in the show consist of tripartite fields of flatly applied monochrome colour, arranged straightforwardly in bands. These pictures might seem to fit more squarely within the traditions of American painting. They bear a distant resemblance to the canvases of Mark Rothko – and indeed the most striking of them all, Green Orange Yellow , was directly inspired by Kelly’s memory of a particular painting by Rothko. But if so, they are Rothkos that have been purged of transcendental implication. Kelly’s flat, uninflected touch is worlds away from Rothko’s misty luminescence. The sense is never lost that these are paintings that have their roots in real experiences of real things and places – the way a building or a shop sign or a billboard looked, from a certain angle, or the way a shadow once fell. Even the most apparently simple of his paintings – some of which have the simplicity, almost of heraldry – convey through the complexity and sheer idiosyncrasy of their colour combinations the strong sense of a very particular and actual experience.
Ordinary memories such as these, Kelly has said, prompt many of his pictures. “As we move, looking at hundreds of different things, we see many different kinds of shapes. Roofs, walls, ceilings are all rectangles, but we don’t see them that way. In reality they’re very elusive forms. The way the view through the rungs of a chair changes when you move even the slightest bit – I want to capture some of that mystery in my work.” Sensitively installed, in the bare and spare daylit spaces of the Serpentine Gallery, this is an exhibition that feels curiously out of time, perhaps because it so solemnly and unapologetically insists that painting can still be a medium of the utmost beauty and seriousness.