Ellsworth Kelly, at last, and a new Dutch modern art museum

Ellsworth Kelly has always been an important artist to me, ever since I first encountered his work as a student in London back in the late 1980s. His use of line and form, coupled with intense colour, drew me towards an interest in abstraction. His reduced artworks had a beauty that engaged my attention and helped me resolve how I could deal with abstract elements in my own work. Kelly’s work continues to be a touchstone in my own studio practice.


Despite this interest in his work I have never seen a solo show of his paintings or sculptures. I have regularly come across pieces in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Otterlo near where I live, but normally only one or two at a time. So it was with considerable anticipation that I arrived at the new Voorlinden Museum, on the outskirts of The Hague to see that elusive solo exhibition, ironically enough, just a few months after the artist’s death.
Kelly himself acknowledged the connection of his work with nature and the world around us. The Voorlinden museum in this regard presents a fantastic context. The architecture itself is reduced and and lean, no decoration here, less still in Kelly’s work. Always close by is the natural world, seen through the expansive glass walls of the museum.
The paintings are given the chance to breath their intense colour, the geometry of the forms cutting across the immaculate walls.
There is an attention to detail in Kelly’s work that is at once simple and fascinatingly complex. An edge that to all intents and purposes looks straight, but just by the smallest of margins isn’t, or one of his curves resting, and seemingly waiting to pivot, on the most fragile of points resting on the ground. But above all in the difusely top-lit gallery spaces of the museum it is the colour that captures the attention. Immaculately laid down surfaces with a rich intensity.

There are many other interesting pieces on show elsewhere in the museum, but in the context of he Kelly show, Open Ended by Richard Serra and Skyspace by James Turrell are particularly enjoyable combinations. Serra’s huge curving arcs envelop you as you walk through them, the rusting steel surface of his sculptures share nothing of the immaculate surface quality of Kelly’s work. However, for both artists the geometry of the edge is crucial. In that regard the edges of Turrell’s Skyspace installation work could hardly appear sharper. From the reclining benches around the sides of the room you look up through the sharp square opening in the roof to the limitless space of the sky above. The awareness you have of the surface of the canvas in Kelly’s work is replaced by an abiguous sense of surface that you know, in reality, is completely absent.. The slowly passing clouds so carefully framed up by the work taking on a feeling of the most full-colour projection possible.

The Voorlinden museum

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Colour, geometry, art and context – James Turrell and Amish quilts exhibition in Tilburg

I have quite a soft spot for the minimalist, post-painterly abstract paintings of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m too young to have memories of the work as it happened and made its way into museums and galleries in the period, but it was important to me particularly during my years at art school where it was a regular reference point to many of my teachers.

From this perspective it was interesting to visit the de Pont museum in Tilburg (the Netherlands).  Alongside the permanent collection they have a temporary show, not of the aforementioned abstract work from forty to fifty years ago, but of a curious juxtaposition of light installations and graphic work by the American light artist James Turrell and historical Amish quilts that are all eighty or more years old.

turrell

It is a strange combination, an extensive collection of beautifully made bed quilts and a documentation of Turrell’s extensive sky observatory work at Roden Crater in Arizona, alongside a number of his museum space installations of projected light creating geometric forms. I love Turrell’s work, and oh how I would like to make a trip to Roden Crater. The intensities of the colour he makes use of, the manipulation of geometric form, but above all the ambiguities of surfaces in his work draws you in and keeps you asking questions about the nature of visual perception.

In quite close proximity to the light installations in the de Pont museum hang the Amish quilts. They are of varying sizes but many share an intense, but unstated use of colour.  I think my biggest problem with the quilts is how they have been displayed. As I have already said, I like looking at geometric abstract paintings. De Pont has the same beautifully sharp spaces and walls that many a modern museum has. Onto these walls the quilts have been hung, with generous white spaces around them, like paintings. It is very difficult (for me at least) to escape looking at them as paintings. And yet, they are not paintings, they are quilts, built up of separate sections of fabric, immaculately stitched together. They have the added charge of a history, a personal narrative and a domestic craft. They are designed to be decorative and to lay flat over a bed as a blanket, at least in part as a functional object.

amish

I am used to encountering functional objects in a museum context, where they are to be looked at, contemplated and definitely not touched. I don’t normally have a problem with this, here though it is simply the overwhelming tendency to try and view these objects like they are something that they are not that I find problematic.

This is clearly a deliberate strategy by the museum, the hard geometry on Turrell’s work, alongside the equally hard geometry of the Amish quilts. It’s all very interesting, but is it a reasonable comparison to be asking us to make?

Turrell’s work is designed for the museum space, the quilts very definitely were not. They were designed to add decorative qualities to the Amish home, with its otherwise quite frugal appearance and a surrounding life focussed on family and God. They were also designed to lie flat, in a different plane than the way they are displayed in the museum.  In the museum, they are not only removed from their context, but displayed in a way that deposits art historical baggage onto them that seems to be pushing a point that in my view isn’t really there.

I liked both parts of the current installations, each for its own merits, but the shared importance of geometry doesn’t make the two parts, if you’ll excuse the Amish quilt context pun, easy bedfellows.