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Aug 6, 2018 11:10 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Guild Hall Highlights Underexplored Periods Of Ellsworth Kelly's Career

Aug 6, 2018 11:10 AM

Throughout the course of his more than six-decade career, abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly built his reputation as a master of hard-edge and color field painting.

Though the artist, who died in 2015 at the age of 92, lived and worked primarily in Manhattan and upstate New York, during the early and late 1960s he took sabbaticals that brought him to another part of New York—the Hamptons.

Here, he created paintings, sculptures, drawings of plants and flowers, and photographs of local barns. Though Kelly’s time on the East End is little known, it’s key, both in terms of the art he produced here and the effect it had on his larger body of work in the years that followed.

While this period—1960-61 and 1968-69—has been little explored by scholars and art historians, a new show at the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton seeks to shed light on the artist’s time on the South Fork and bring it into perspective.

“Ellsworth Kelly in the Hamptons” opens Saturday, August 11, and, in a recent phone interview, guest curator Phyllis Tuchman, who knew the artist, explained why she thinks the work he created here has been overlooked for so long.

“It’s because they were transitional pieces and unlike other periods,” she said. “The ’68-69 works were so multifaceted, not just painting but collages, photographs and sculpture.

“I think everyone wants a set story. The retrospectives didn’t isolate these periods out,” she added. “There was a show of works that he made while in France, and, in 2013, the Museum of Modern Art did a show of the Chatham series—paintings made when he moved upstate.

“But this was sitting here waiting to be found. Ellsworth once told me that Matthew Marks, his dealer, was the best he had ever had. Having worked with him, I can see why.”

Ms. Tuchman said Mr. Marks was instrumental in assembling many of the works that will be on view in the Guild Hall show. Among the pieces he uncovered were five drawings of crabs that Kelly made while in the Hamptons that were not rendered in his usual minimalist style.

“When the Met did a show of his plant drawings, there weren’t going to be crab drawings in the middle of the show,” Ms. Tuchman said. “But everyone I’ve shown them to has flipped. They’re very realistic.”

But it wasn’t just drawings that were outside the realm of Kelly’s normal genre. He also used his time on the East End to explore photography.

“He was inspired by being in a different landscape,” Ms. Tuchman said. “The group of photos from ’68 are extraordinary, because they’re barns in Southampton and they are fast disappearing. I wonder how many of them still exist.”

Artists, of course, have been coming to this part of the world for a very long time to pursue their work. When asked if Kelly may have had a specific reason to chose the East End for his sabbaticals, Ms. Tuchman said, “I’m guessing he came out hoping to leave the city for a while, the way most people want to do in the summer. In the ’68-69 period, he was friends with Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein, and Tricia Paik, the director at the Mount Holyoke museum.”

But Kelly’s escape from the city wasn’t just about avoiding the summer heat or being social with friends. There was also a logistical reason for him to be on the East End: space.

“At the Hotel des Artistes, where he lived, he could not make big paintings,” said Ms. Tuchman, who noted that Kelly’s paintings had gotten so large they wouldn’t fit inside the elevator. “He had to put them on top of the elevator to transport them. In the Hamptons, he had a chance to work on larger pieces.”

Ms. Tuchman concedes that putting this show together was something of a challenge, due to the difficulty in borrowing paintings, particularly from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which wouldn’t part with any of them. What is in the show, however, are four major paintings by Kelly on loan from dealer Paula Cooper, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“We also have plant drawings, photographs, some collages and, amazingly, also thanks to Matthew Marks, three driftwood sculptures no one had ever seen,” Ms. Tuchman said.

Also on view in the exhibition will be a photograph that helps to put the work in context with Kelly’s time here. Taken in Springs in 1960, the photo shows Kelly sitting on the grass in a clearing surrounded by the paintings he made that summer—including “White Alice,” a work that will also be included in the exhibition, on loan from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

While Kelly’s work remained abstract throughout his career, Ms. Tuchman sees evidence of his time in the Hamptons through what she calls “whiffs of landscapes” in his later work.

“In the ’70s, you’ll see these curves in his paintings, which he used to relate to the curves in the road that would see out there,” she said. “I think being in the Hamptons was totally critical to him.”

Ms. Tuchman also points to the “Spectrum” series of paintings that Kelly created throughout his career. These large-scale paintings were made up of a number of colorful linked panels with space between each.

“We weren’t able to borrow ‘Spectrum 5’ from the Met, but it’s a 13-panel piece, and you see a sense of a 24-hour day, starting with yellow and ending with yellow.”

“I think in the paintings from his earlier visits, he was intent on making the shapes on the canvas larger and more unique and more singular,” she said. “Later on, in the other paintings from the end of the decade, he began to work with shaped canvases.

“That idea stayed with him for the rest of his life.”

“Ellsworth Kelly in the Hamptons” runs August 11 through October 8 at Guild Hall Museum, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. The show opens with a members reception and talk by Phyllis Tuchman, guest curator, on Saturday, August 11, from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information, visit guildhall.org.

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