Alumni Voices: New Ellsworth Kelly Commission Enlivens Arts District

Posted on January 01, 2013  by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, winter 2013
Tricia Y. Paik ’91, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Saint Louis Art Museum

This fall, Dartmouth College unveiled a monumental wall sculpture by leading American artist Ellsworth Kelly. Commissioned by Leon Black ’73 and his wife, Debra Black, Dartmouth Panels, a multicolored, site-specific work, was conceived in conjunction with the new Black Family Visual Arts Center, also dedicated this fall and made possible by a $48 million gift from the Blacks. The visual arts center, a 105,000-square-foot building designed by Machado and Silvetti Associates, now houses the departments of Studio Art and Film and Media Studies, as well as the nascent Digital Humanities Program. The addition of the visual arts center adjacent to the Hopkins Center for the Arts and the Hood Museum of Art inaugurates Dartmouth’s new Arts District, which elevates the College’s commitment to the visual and performing arts.

Installed on the rear (east) façade of the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium, the Kelly commission features five separate aluminum panels, each painted a single color—yellow, green, blue, red, and orange. The size and arrangement of the rectangular panels, each measuring 22.5 feet tall by 5.5 feet wide, successfully complement the scale and design of the building’s brick façade and five-scalloped roofline. Kelly’s signature boldly colored forms contrast with and enliven this red brick wall, adding visual interest and complexity to a surface that had remained unadorned since the Hopkins Center, designed by architect Wallace K. Harrison, opened in 1962.

As the design process for the visual arts center took shape, Leon Black, an avid arts enthusiast and collector, recognized the need to develop a strong focal point for this new Arts District. Black saw the rear Spaulding wall, which directly faces the entrance to the visual arts center, as an ideal site, observing, “If we could put a great sculpture on those five towers, we could communicate that this is the creative spot on campus, a place focused on art.” He then invited Ellsworth Kelly, a master of postwar American abstraction, to develop a concept for this façade. Admired for his steadfast exploration of abstract painting over the last sixty years, Kelly is also noted for his large-scale wall commissions, most recently for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, and the PaulLöbe Haus parliament building in Berlin. Michael Taylor, Director of the Hood Museum of Art and Chair of the Public Art Committee, applauded the choice: “Public art of the caliber of an Ellsworth Kelly piece enriches the environment in which we live, work, and study, and it will play a vital role in exposing Dartmouth students and the wider community to a diverse range of works by contemporary artists.”

Now eighty-nine years old, Kelly is among the last surviving members of a significant artistic generation that emerged in mid- 1950s New York. Unlike his contemporaries Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein, who incorporated recognizable subject matter into their work, Kelly committed his art to the realization of an abstract language, though one still informed by everyday visual experience, such as the shadow of a metal staircase or the shape of a woman’s scarf. He also sought to accommodate the real world in his art, emphasizing the architectural wall on which his work would be hung. As Kelly explained in 1983, “The result was a painting whose interest was not only in itself, but also in its relation to things outside it.”

While living in France from 1948 to 1954 on the G.I. Bill (the artist had served in a camouflage battalion during World War II), Kelly first developed the ideas that would become the foundation for his artistic practice: to make an anonymous abstract art concentrating on fragments and single forms combined with vivid color. Drawn to both medieval and modern architecture, he conceived a crucial corollary: to create art whose scale and form would function with modern architecture. Kelly shared his ideas with artistic mentors he met in France, including the composer John Cage, to whom he wrote the following in 1950: “I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long—to hang on the walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures—they should be the wall—even better—on the outside wall—of large buildings. Or stood up outside as billboards or a kind of modern icon.”

In the years that followed his return to New York in 1954, Kelly received a number of commissions for “large buildings,” such as his wall sculpture for the 1957 Transportation Building at Penn Center, Philadelphia (now housed at the Museum of Modern Art), a wall relief for Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, New York (now installed at Harvard University), and a work for Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for the United States Pavilion at Expo 67, Montreal, and for the UNESCO building, Paris, in 1969.

What all of these works have in common, along with more recent commissions (except for the artist’s freestanding sculptures), is Kelly’s transformation of the architectural wall from a simple support to an active, integral part of the artwork. For the Dartmouth Panels, Kelly drew from his practice of serial multi-panel painting, which also dates back to his time in France in the early 1950s. The five segmented areas on the Spaulding wall led Kelly to conceive of separate panels installed in each vertical section. For the color scheme, Kelly turned to a combination he had not used before, carefully adjusting the height and width of the final panel size until he felt he had arrived at “the right measure of color” for the wall. Highlighting the fundamentals of visual experience is Kelly’s foremost goal—to make us aware of how we look at the world. He remarked, “You have to see [the installation] at different times of the day. The color becomes very strong with the sun directly on it and then it becomes a shadowed wall when the sun goes behind the building.”

Kelly explained that it was a new experience to create a work for “older architecture” and not to develop the concept along with the architect. He laughed and joked, admittedly quite humbly for a modernist master, “It’s a bit pushy of me to put the colors there—I’m moving in and taking residence on the wall!” During the installation of the Dartmouth Panels over the summer, Kelly recalled the reactions of some of the students in attendance: “One of the boys said, ‘Okay, color, so what?’” He then turned to Kelly and asked, “Where did you get your ideas from?” Kelly’s reply channeled the same answer given to him sixty years ago when he asked a similar question of an earlier modernist master, Alexander Calder: “You’ll have to read a lot of books.”

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Written January 01, 2013 by Kristin Swan