Ellsworth Kelly at the Fondation Louis Vuitton
Ellsworth Kelly at the Fondation Louis Vuitton

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with minimal art. I guess I have to be in the right mood to appreciate it. When I’m stressed it leaves me totally indifferent. All I want to do is move on to something that stops me in my tracks and draws me in. Then again, perhaps a powerful dose of minimal art is exactly what I need at such a moment. A painting by Frank Stella or a sculpture by Donald Judd just “is”. There is nothing to understand, nothing to interpret. As such it has a Zen-like quality that can inspire tranquility. But to experience that you need to sit down in front of a painting or sculpture and just look while gently letting go of any thoughts or worries that pop up into your mind. 

I was in no hurry when I visited the Ellsworth Kelly retrospective "Shapes and Colors. 1949-2015" at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. I arrived well in advance of my 10 o’clock time slot and I was the third person to go through security. Upon entering you have to decide whether to first visit the Ellsworth Kelly exhibition, which starts at the lower ground floor, or to take the escalator to the first floor to visit Matisse: The Red Studio. It's a tough choice, because by the time you finish either exhibition the other will be crowded with visitors. I wanted to have some works by Ellsworth Kelly largely to myself, if only for a few minutes, so I opted to visit the Ellsworth Kelly exhibition first.

In 1948, shortly after graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) moved to Paris where he would live for the next six years. He immersed himself in the city’s post-war art scene and befriended artists like Jean Arp and Constantin Brâncuși. "Cut Up Drawing Rearranged by Chance" (1950), which was possibly created following conversations with John Cage and Merce Cunningham, whom Kelly had met in Paris, about the role of chance in art, is an interesting and indeed inspiring work from this period. I’m actually thinking of creating some collages in the same vein. At around the same time Kelly began creating his first abstract compositions of water ripples and of spectrum colors arranged by chance, a concept to which he would return multiple times in subsequent years.

In 1954 Ellsworth Kelly moved back to the United States. His simple compositions in bright colors contrasted sharply with the then dominant abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. In the 1960s Kelly began experimenting with irregularly shaped canvases followed, in the 1970s, by curved canvases.

Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings often incorporate the wall, or in case of "Yellow Curve" (1990) the floor, as an element in the composition, with the canvas acting as the figure and the wall as the ground. I initially mistook "Painting in Three Panels" (1956) for three carefully placed individual paintings, but it is in fact a triptych composed of three separate panels. The wall and the space in-between the panels are integral elements of the composition. The other works in the exhibition are, of course, also carefully placed so as to create a symphony in shape and color.

The exhibition brings together more than one hundred paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs created between 1949-2015. 

I enjoyed seeing a selection of the photographs Kelly took from the early 1950s onwards. As Kelly himself commented, they are records of his vision, of how he sees things. And indeed, a shadow, a beam of light, a door or a roof, when seen from a certain angle constitute the same graphic elements that form the basis of Kelly’s painterly and sculptural practice.

Throughout his career Ellsworth Kelly also created various site specific works and architectural interventions. Shortly before his death the Fondation Louis Vuitton commissioned him to create a site specific work for the auditorium of its Frank Gehry designed premises. Le Corbusier once said of Ellsworth Kelly that “this kind of painting needs the architecture to go with it.” And indeed, the panels that Kelly created for the Fondation Louis Vuitton merge perfectly with the architecture.

Ellsworth Kelly. Shapes and Colors, 1949-2015 is at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris through 9 September 2024.