In Focus

Ellsworth Kelly's Untitled

The following is a 2003 essay by Roberdeau Wood, published_ in_ Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

For Ellsworth Kelly, process is exceedingly important and almost exponential in its evolutionary application to the completion of a work. To generate a sculpture of this size, he often begins with a small paper cutout, fixing the shape in his mind. From there, drawings emerge and plans are drawn. [1] Kelly often assembles and paints larger models before sending them to be fabricated into their final form. Untitled was commissioned specifically for the Dallas Museum of Art's Sculpture Garden and is part of a series informally called "Rockers." These large geometric shapes, executed in the medium of paint or steel, have preoccupied Kelly over many years of artistic practice. It is said that rather than simply comment on the form of a square, arch, or parallelogram in space, as would the most devout minimalist, Kelly opts to appropriate preexisting architectural and natural shapes. Whether it be the sensuous curve of a leaf or the starkness of a window pane, the reference for the artist's hard-edged panels produced from steel or canvas are derived from his keen observation of the mundane. After World War II, he spent six years in Paris training as a draftsman. The love of lines he developed there serves as his inspiration. His move from drawings to sculpture was perhaps due to the positive influence of Alexander Calder and Anthony Caro. Their ground breaking lyrical forms in space during the late 1950s and early 1960s allowed Kelly, in the 1970s and early 1980s, to move away from not only the two-dimensional limitations of drawing and painting but also the restrictions dictated by the gallery wall. This allowed him to express his vision in open air and on a larger scale. His paintings and drawings are in no way diminished by his sculptures but could be considered intermediaries between an original thought and its final manifestation.

In December 1981, Kelly paid a highly anticipated visit to the Museum's developing Sculpture Garden to meet with Director Harry Parker, Assistant Director/Chief Curator Steven A. Nash, Curator of Contemporary Art Sue Graze, and donor Michael Collins. As the piece was intended to be "site-specific" (created with a particular location in mind) the commissioned work's final location had to be carefully considered. [2] After extensive deliberation, it was decided that due to the artist's profound love of organic forms, the monumental yet graceful "Rocker" would be best accentuated between the serenity of the reflecting pool and the kinetic energy of the waterfall behind. By the end of summer 1983, after repeated diagrams, models, and plans, the collaboration between artist and institution was complete, and the Dallas community acquired an exceptionally strong and refined example of the work of one of the 20th century's greatest sculptors. The ten-foot-high stainless steel structure has a wingspan of nineteen feet with a depth of seventeen (more than enough to provide shelter from the rain) and weighs in at a grand 18,000 pounds. Even so, correspondence shows that the artist and his crew feared the piece might be no match for powerful Texas winds; as a result, two foundation plates, delving through stone and concrete, fix the sculpture in place while remaining deceptively invisible. This creates the illusion of heavy steel balancing precariously on the courtyard bricks and produces an effect similar to a rocking chair or hobby horse'.

Viewers circling the realized work might notice that three dimensions seemingly become two and then, once again, lines appear and jettison upward and outward simultaneously. The shades of the silver matte finish fluctuate with the natural light in the calming outdoor environment, and one's awareness of the physical self becomes more acute. The piece eagerly adjoins itself with its surroundings, which include sculptures by Aristide Maillol, who references nature directly with Flora , 1911 [1960.70], and David Smith, who focuses on the form of the cube with Cubi XVII, _1963 [1965.32.McD]. Kelly's _Untitled is appropriately positioned between these two, creating an almost perfect sightline. Kelly succeeds in allying themes of the simplicity of the natural world with the industrial progress of mankind. Most noticeable, perhaps, is his ability to capture a graceful beauty comprised of elegance as well as strength.

[1] Emily Rauh Pulitzer and Patterson Sims, Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982), 29.

[2] Other works commissioned at the time of the new building include Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #398 (1983), Claes Oldenburg's Stake Hitch (1984), and Richard Fleischner's courtyard (designed 1982).

Excerpt from

Roberdeau Wood, “Ellsworth Kelly's Untitled,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 51.