Ellsworth Kelly exhibit inaugurates Barnes’ nod to contemporary art

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is about to open its first exhibition of contemporary art since the foundation was created in 1923. The abstract, minimalist artist Ellsworth Kelly will break the 90-year mold. 

When the Barnes Foundation opened its new building on the Parkway, it reserved a large, rectangular room off the lobby for temporary exhibitions. Until now, it has been devoted to an exhibit about Albert Barnes, the creator and mastermind of the singular collection.

Kelly, who turns 90 this month, created the zigzag steel monolith planted just outside the entrance to the building. Inside are wall sculptures, including works made just last year.

The dominant piece is the 65-foot “Sculpture for a Large Wall,” with 104 multicolored aluminum panels suspended between five pairs of parallel bars.

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Installed in 1957 inside the lobby of the old Penn Center Transportation Building at 18th and JFK, it was Kelly’s first sculpture, and his first commission. The artist had just come back to the States from a six-year sojourn in Paris, where he worked on large-scale collages that wrestled content out of his work.

Allowing color and shape free rein

“I wanted it to be empty, in some sense,” said Kelly, seated in the Barnes gallery in front of the massive sculpture he made 56 years ago. “Empty of connection. It’s not Marilyn Monroe. It’s not a landscape. Not a seascape. It’s not a Picasso woman. It activates the color to you.”

Kelly wanted to free pure color from inside the picture frame, and have it jump off the wall. The cut aluminum panels are angled, creating myriad optical illusions of lines and curves. He had taken cues from John Cage to build randomness into the sculpture, inventing a system of grids and throws that took some design elements out of his control. He was inspired, in part, by the way sunlight shimmers on the surface of the Seine River in Paris.

“Sculpture for a Large Wall” was removed from the transportation building in 1998 when it underwent renovations. It was snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

‘A manifesto for the Barnes’

Its return to town (temporarily) gives Philadelphians a chance to see what they lost. The president of the Barnes Foundation, Derek Gillman, says Albert Barnes’ ideas about putting paintings next to each other, in order to reinforce their compositional features, is reflected in Kelly’s massive works of simple shapes and bold colors.

“It feels right” said Gillman. “Now, we’re standing in a space with a ‘Sculpture for a Large Wall,’ which is full of shape and form and color and line and — it feels almost like a manifesto for the Barnes.”

Kelly made an earlier, more direct attempt to paint sunlight shimmering on river. “Seine” (1951) is a grid of black and white squares that presaged pixelation. It’s on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a few blocks down the Parkway from the Barnes, where another small Kelly retrospective is hung.

The Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum iof Art are joining almost a dozen othe rmuseum around the world in celebrating Kelly’s 90th birthday this month. They include the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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