- Ellsworth Kelly
- Untitled (Totem)
- stamp signed, numbered EK872 and dated 1996
- stainless steel
- 216 x 22 x 1 7/8 in. 548.6 x 55.9 x 4.8 cm.
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London (acquired from the artist, EK872)
Private Collection, Los Angeles
Acquired by the present owner from the above
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The gravitas of Ellsworth Kelly's aesthetics, both in sculpture and in painting, draws from a rigorous devotion to a refined simplicity and formal coherence that is beautifully apparent in Untitled (Totem) from 1994-95. Regardless of medium, Kelly's vision is singular, and his practice is one of reduction and distillation. The shapes most attractive to Kelly are both organic and streamlined, as if he has reduced the natural world to something even more elemental than nature. Untitled (Totem) belongs to a series of similar works that emerged from the Curve sculptures beginning in 1974 and that together form one of the most consistent explorations of a single aesthetic in his sculptural oeuvre. In both their Modernist sense of reduction and sympathy to prehistoric monuments of ancient civilizations – Stonehenge, the mo'ai of Easter Island – Kelly's elegant totems embrace both the origins and the present vocabulary of sculpture.
Kelly's move, in 1973, from New York City to the Berkshires, was a clear inspiration for the outdoor sculptures such as the Curve and Stele, which were "never so much imposed on the landscape as against it." (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture, 1982, p. 27) Unlike the totem poles of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, which, though immense, were still made of units that were of a plausibly human scale, Kelly's sculptures seem sui generis, without a human corollary. Kelly's seem more akin to architectonic monoliths, simultaneously space age and primitive, representing slivers or sections from larger rectangular sheets of metal. Untitled (Totem), executed in 1995-96, towers 18 feet over the viewer. The functional base is meant to be buried, the totem appearing to rise from the earth or the floor. The convex midsection is slightly swollen, bowed out in comparison to the gently tapered top and bottom.
Yet, the tall Curve sculptures and the later Totems consist of three basic shapes: mirror-image convex sides, mirror-image concave sides, and a smaller subgroup of concentric curved sides. The convex and concave forms, despite their featureless shapes do have figurative connotations. "Of the two basic symmetrical types Kelly thinks of one as masculine – a broad-shouldered, concave, archaic Apollo or kouros figure – and the other as feminine – a swelling, convex Venus or kore. He also equates the convex curve with the entasis of a Greek column.'' (Ibid., p. 111)
In its figurative connotations, Untitled (Totem) joins a longstanding artistic dialogue in the history of sculpture which includes Constantin Brancusi's transformative Bird in Space (1940) as well as Alberto Giacometti's figures, stretched vertically and elongated to the point of both awkwardness and grace. Kelly's more immediate predecessor, David Smith, also retained a strain of figurative presence within his sculptural vocabulary, sometimes more overtly as with his Tank Totem series or the Sentinels as well as some of the earlier Cubi sculptures such as Cubi II.
In further comparison, Smith and Kelly both sought to accomplish a masterful balance between solid and void. Smith's grandiloquent and penultimate Cubi sculptures achieve this balance heroically, addressing the optical play of sleek geometry in reflective, highly polished steel. Smith fused modern technologies and the materials of industry and machinery to achieve a body of work that occupies real space and substantial volume simultaneously inspired by both Surrealist lyricism and Cubist disjointedness. Kelly's discourse is more sublime and elusive. His slender form of his Curves and his Totems achieves a grand proportion in only one dimension; they soar skyward and become magnificently imposing in their own quietfashion. Akin to Smith's famous fields at Bolton Landing which he populated with his sculptures, Kelly also placed his early totemic Curves on his lawn against a backdrop of trees. In both instances, the artists were celebrating sculptures' ability to both illuminate and engage with its environment. A vision of steel framed with foliage can, within a literal blink of the eye, switch to being a vision of foliage framed by steel. The toggling between both ways of seeing is ceaseless. In Smith's case, he achieved the effect with the mirrored, polished surface of his steel. In Kelly's case, he achieves this effect by a careful choice of form and composition, which often relates to some of the slenderest and most biomorphic shapes within his early canvases.
Whether in his monochromatic canvases or his sculptural work, Ellsworth Kelly investigates art as object. The artist's painting compositions were "shapes" of saturated hues, progressing from compositions of geometric color forms, balanced within the frame, to shaped canvases and multi-panel paintings that defied the traditions of easel painting. Kelly directly addressed the nature of the painted canvas as aesthetic object with spatial interrelationships between the art and the wall, as well as the art and the viewer. Once he formally embarked into the third dimension, Kelly's wall reliefs and sculptures demand similar visual experiences of the viewer, and command and define their surrounding space whether indoors or outdoors. Are we looking at these massive planes of metal? Or rather, are the cool surfaces and geometric outlines meant to drawn us in, draw us through, the implied void? It is possible to stare at the totems from a distance and remain undecided in regards to the motif of positive versus negative space – are they meant to dissolve atmosphere or to enhance it?