Art review: Ellsworth Kelly | In Abstr-action

The National Galleries of Scotland recently bought Arthur Melville’s The Chalk Cutting. It is an important acquisition. Melville is a great painter and this is a striking example of his precocious modernism. Painted in the 1890s, the picture is abstract in all but name. Melville was ahead of the game, but it took a long time for the public to catch up. Indeed the idea of abstract art was still so scandalous even in the 1940s, that when the new Head of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art,

Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly


Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

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In Abstr-action - Hetty Haxworth, Aimée Henderson and Rosalind Lawless

Glasgow Print Studio

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Eric Shilsky, introduced abstract design into the curriculum, it was so sensational it earned a picture in this newspaper. The implication was: shock-horror! Those days are long gone. Indeed, the idea of making art out of such simple things as shapes and colours seems almost quaint: artists stubbornly clinging to the old ways in spite of fashion. Fashion of course is wrong. The prints of American painter Ellsworth Kelly at the Ingelby Gallery bear witness to the enduring power of the best abstract art. His art really is rigorously abstract, too. The works in this show consist of nothing but the simplest possible geometric shapes in pure colour against white paper.

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Kelly is a veteran. His career began in the 1940s when, as the Shilsky story demonstrates, the very idea of abstraction was exciting and controversial. He is now in his nineties. The most recent work here was made in 2011 and lacks nothing of the power and authority of the other works that date back over 40 years. He served in the war, but his experience in the army was both unusual and formative. Volunteering to work on camouflage, he joined the Ghost Army, the special unit of the US Army which took camouflage, essentially a passive business, and made it, if not actually aggressive, then certainly proactive.

The Ghost Army’s job was not just to conceal, but to mislead; to create illusionary armies to deceive the enemy. They used all kinds of ingenious devices from inflatable tanks and aeroplanes to projecting the sound of an army on the move to do so. It must have been fun and was certainly effective. It was not perhaps a training that led directly to abstraction, but it was an unusual and stimulating approach to thinking visually. It demanded originality and originality has marked Kelly’s work ever since.

He worked in Paris between 1948 and 1954. It was a time of great excitement. Abstraction was the thing, but opinion was split. On the one hand there were the formal painters whose ideas went back through Mondrian and Paul Klee to Delaunay and to Cubism interpreted in terms of colour and abstract shape. On the other hand there were the Abstract Expressionists, or in France the Tachistes, for whom abstraction was a way of expressing passion through gesture: the painter was the painting almost in the way that a dancer is the dance. Influenced by Matisse and Jean Arp, Kelly belonged to the formal camp from the beginning, but his art always had a kind of simplicity that set it apart. When he returned to America, he didn’t fit in with 
the Abstract Expressionists, but neither was he simply a cerebral Minimalist.

As the prints in this show demonstrate, his art is very tangible. The means he uses are minimal, but the impact of the work is not. His prints are definitely out there, things to be experienced in a physical way, yet you could not get a simpler image than Untitled, for instance, a blue triangle with one curved side against white paper, or Blue Curve, a rectangle with one corner cut off. At first the title seems misleading. Where’s the blue curve? But look closely and the angled side is not straight. It is a very shallow arc. It is like the Greek idea of entasis, the curve in the profile of the columns of a temple whose effect paradoxically is to make the column look straighter. This subtlety and the way it changes the image is typical of Kelly. Green Curve, for instance, is a green diamond shape with one curved side. There is also a similar Red Curve. In both cases, the effect of this small variation in the regular geometry of the shape is to make it dynamic, bringing it to life, lifting it out of the flat into three dimensions even.

A couple of these works look like simple flags. One consists of vertical bars of blue, yellow and red, another of horizontal bars of red, black, green and blue. It was of course this simplicity which infuriated the public 50 years ago. It looks so easy. The complaint was always, “Anybody could do it! Why is it art?” There are two things to say about that. One is the established authority of the artist. If the same statement is made by two people, one of whom you have reason to respect, the other you do not, they will carry very different weight. That is why the reputation of the artist matters, and also why so many contemporary reputations concocted solely by media exposure are so often factitious.

The other thing that gives these works such authority is their sheer beauty. They are quite exquisite. The colour is intense, vibrant and pure. In the case of prints, and these are all lithographs except for one screen print, these are qualities which reflect not only the fastidiousness of the artist, but also the skill of the printer. These were printed in America. The printers are not named, but they were clearly very good at their job, but we do also have those skills here. The Scottish Print workshops are one of the most enduring legacies of the Scottish Arts Council. They don’t seem to have an exact parallel anywhere else and are a major skill resource. Appropriately too, and complementing the Ellsworth Kelly show, Glasgow Print Studio is currently showing In Abstraction, work by Hetty Haxworth, Aimée Henderson and Rosalind Lawless. As the title implies, all are abstract artists.

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Of the three, Hetty Haxworth is perhaps closest to the tradition that Ellsworth Kelly represents with such authority. In her monoprint, Burnished Landscape, for instance, she uses pure flat colours and overlapping shapes where the colours change to construct a satisfying, almost musical composition that fills the whole field of the picture.

The other two veer a little closer to the expressive side of abstraction. Rosalind Lawless makes screen prints, but as she does in Balcony, for instance, she works over them in paint and pastel to give a less formal, more improvised feeling to the image. Her shapes float in the space that they create. Aimée Henderson’s works in the show are not actually prints at all. She uses oil paint and pencil to create forms that are not organic, but nevertheless seem to have a spontaneous life of their 
own as they wander across the paper.

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So abstract art is alive and well, but this show in Glasgow is perhaps also at least indirectly a tribute to Philip Reeves who has done so 
much to keep this tradition 
alive. He the old master of Scottish abstraction, but he is also a master printmaker. He had a central role in the creation of both the Edinburgh and Glasgow print workshops and has been particularly closely associated with Glasgow Print Studio for many years.

He is ten years younger than Ellsworth Kelly, but like him his work has its origins in those dramatic post-war years when the very idea of abstract art was so controversial. Times have changed, but the art endures, or, as the saying goes, “ars longa, vita brevis”.

Ellsworth Kelly until 21 February; 
In Abstraction until 23 March