Simple Grace

Using two-dimensional forms, Ellsworth Kelly and Henri Matisse evoke depth and power

Henri Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings / Ellsworth Kelly: Selected Works

Henri Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings
The St. Louis Art Museum, through July 14

Ellsworth Kelly: Selected Works
The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, through October 26

It was fashionable and convenient a couple of decades ago to think that postmodernism would inevitably bring about the end of modernist culture. Modernist art, it seemed, was surely on its way out, displaced by hip, ironic, photography-informed postmodernist production. No longer would we have to make room for moody, expressionist angst (unless it was in the form of knowing appropriations of the signs of moody, expressionist angst); nor was it necessary to learn the lessons of formalism, those hermetic aesthetic values that date back to Kant and have endured through Greenberg and beyond. Back then, it seemed, a definite break was at hand; something was clearly passing away.

Twenty years later, the dust has settled, and it's clear that modernist art isn't going anywhere. On the contrary, the concerns of modernism have re-emerged within newer artistic practices, resulting in some interesting hybrids (paintings by Karen Davie and Kerry James Marshall and sculptures by Ursula von Rydingsvard and Cornelia Parker are just a few examples). And recently, high modernism itself has enjoyed a revivalism of sorts. Witness the covers and feature stories in Art in America and ArtForum, lately dedicated to the likes of Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Bridget Riley and Agnes Martin. Call it a modernist zephyr (if not a storm). It seems to be reanimating the art world, to the relief of a large segment of the art-conscious public.

Perhaps that explains the indescribable rightness of two exhibitions that recently opened in St. Louis: Henri Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings at the St. Louis Art Museum and Ellsworth Kelly: Selected Works at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. These shows deliver everything one could want from a day spent with art. They encapsulate history but are utterly current, they're partly about the individual artists but mostly about much bigger ideas and they remind us, again, about the power of modernist art.

The exhibition at the Pulitzer, curated by Kelly himself, comprises 14 works culled from St. Louis collections. It's a nice survey of Kelly's 50-plus-year career (the earliest work was done in 1950, the latest in 2001), but it is in no way chronological, exhaustive or otherwise didactic. The pieces are hung thoughtfully throughout the building, inviting contemplation and visual interaction. In the entrance gallery, "White Black" (1957), a small painting that contrasts black and white forms, anticipates the play on positive/negative space at work in many of Kelly's plant drawings on view at SLAM. "White Black" counterbalances a larger work hung on the opposing wall, "Blue Black" (1988), which consists of two colored sliding planes, hung on the diagonal.

The exhibition reaches its crescendo in the main gallery, where six massive pieces appear to float rather than hang from the walls. These works include "Blue Black" (2001), the 28-foot wall sculpture at the far end of the gallery; "Yellow Panel with Curve" (1992), a stunning sail-shaped piece; "Black, Yellow Orange" (1970), whose bold colors and composition inevitably invite comparisons to the work of Peter Halley; the Pulitzer's metaphysical triptych "Dark Gray, White, Gray" (1986); and the enormous "Spectrum (Blue Green Yellow Orange Red) (1968), on five jointed panels, descending in size.

In each of these paintings Kelly has masterfully orchestrated color, scale and shape. Seen together, the works act as counterpoints to one another, as well as to the Pulitzer's architecture. The interaction between the building and the paintings is palpable. It's apparent in the shadows cast on and by the works and in the way the paintings carry out the strict geometry of Tadao Ando's architecture. After seeing these pieces in the context of Ando's Pulitzer building, it's hard to imagine them working quite as well anywhere else. The exhibition is a reminder that architectonics was the basis of much modernist art, from the development of Cubism through Russian suprematism and constructivism to De Stijl, Bauhaus and the American hard-edge painting tradition to which Kelly himself belongs.

This point is missed by those who think of Kelly's work only in terms of its two-dimensionality. Granted, his surfaces are flat, his colors are smoothly applied and there is no illusionism. But Kelly's compositions are based on observations of three-dimensional structures in the world. And the moment they were hung on the Pulitzer's walls, Kelly's works became extended elements of the larger architectural context. They clearly engage the third dimension -- and the fourth, if one considers the element of time involved as viewers move through the gallery and observe the shifting spatial relationships of the architecture and the art.

Structure of a related kind is at the heart of Kelly's plant drawings as well. St. Louis is lucky enough to be the only American venue for this exhibition, organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which brings together the plant drawings of Kelly and another prodigious modernist, Henri Matisse. The show is a revelation: Two artists, known for their command of color, working in separate halves of the twentieth century, are linked by their fascination with the rendering of plant forms in graphite, charcoal and ink.

Kelly and Matisse are, of course, linked by more than just their plant studies. Taking the broader view, Kelly's hard-edged paintings of the 1960s and beyond might be considered the logical progression of the cut-outs Matisse made in the last years of his life. And both men spent their careers transforming three-dimensional form, light and space into dazzling two-dimensional arrangements that are at once simple and complex.

In the plant drawings, both artists have distilled these interests beautifully. Matisse's drawings, in particular, represent progressive stages in his artistic development and his pursuit of the decorative. His early drawings, such as "Fig Branch" (circa 1900), show the artist intuitively grasping abstract form, even as he employs hatching to capture the illusion of three-dimensional form. Later works, such as "Lemons" (circa 1941-42) and "Decorative Panel with Magnolia Motif" (1945), show him concentrating on the outline of form and contrasts of negative and positive space.

In considering Matisse's art, the "decorative" is not a pejorative term. In his time, the "decorative" was coterminous with the "modern." It designated a pursuit of art that rejected conventions of perspective, illusionism, and narrative, in favor of an emphasis on flat form, expressive color and all-over design. It also meant absorption of abstraction and patterns associated with folk art and non-Western traditions such as the Islamic, African and even ancient Egyptian aesthetics.

Kelly's drawings represent a pared-down follow-through of much of what Matisse began. Some of Kelly's drawings consist of nothing more than one or two sinuous outlines on paper, as in "Castor Bean Leaf" (1961) and "Water Lily" (1968). Even the most elaborate, such as the 1949 "Seaweed" (a vertical drawing, fully five feet long), rely on the simple outline technique, with no shading or modeling, and little if any detail. For Kelly, the unmarked paper is as important to the drawing as the marks he makes.

Phrased another way, what isn't there in Kelly's drawings is just as important as what is there. And if that observation sounds loaded with existential weight, it is. After all, with works such as these by Kelly and Matisse, we find ourselves smack in the middle of high-modernist territory, with all the baggage that comes with it. Funny thing is, after spending time looking at so much smart-ass, postmodern and post-postmodern productions by artists from Generation X, Y or Z, it feels really good to be here.

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.