Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

Posted on June 01, 2016 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2016
John Stomberg, Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director

The energy of Ellsworth Kelly’s Dartmouth Panels startles me every time I walk by them, which, happily, is quite often. The five color panels looming over the Maffei Arts Plaza shift subtly throughout the day as the light changes, the hues sliding toward the blue end of their range early on and warming to the yellow end as the day proceeds—all of which can change again, depending on the weather. It is uncanny how alive they are. They never offer the same experience twice.

This was Kelly too. Always fresh, always creating, always making positive contributions to the world around him. With his death last December, we lost one of the great artists of all time, but we did not lose his contributions. Having lived to ninety-two, and being a particularly driven and productive artist, Kelly left examples of his work on almost every continent on earth. But nowhere is there a better place to enjoy the vitality of Kelly’s art than the campus’s arts courtyard, crowned with the majesty of his Dartmouth Panels.

This work celebrates the exuberance and emotional force of pure color. And not just any colors. Kelly had an unmatched eye for hue and worked relentlessly to achieve very specific results. Yellow, green, blue, red, and orange—each one is simultaneously universal and distinctly a “Kelly” shade, in and of itself. They stand as beacons of creativity, suffusing the entire plaza with the joy of vision. Kelly maximized the emotive potential of every element he used in his art, and in this case it is the expressive power of color. Instead of reiterating the visible world in a direct manner, mimicking what can be seen, his panels connect with us on a post-conscious level, much the way music does. Knowing that one panel is “yellow,” and naming it as such, has little to nothing to do with how we comprehend his work. Rather the colors pour into our brains largely unscathed by interpretation.

The scale becomes important here. The panels are huge, and their impact is equally so, dominating our senses as we move through the plaza. Kelly had an amazing sense of the size required to successfully carry out the mission of his Dartmouth Panels, namely to color our experience of that space and our time spent moving through it.

Kelly once told me that it takes a long, long time and a lot of practice to get to the essence of art—to learn how to squeeze every drop of expressive energy from a line, a form, or a color. The Dartmouth Panels testify to his point. By the time Kelly designed this work, commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Black Family Visual Arts Center in 2012, he had been an active artist for over seventy years. With just five color panels, he created a moving, complete, compelling, and original work of art that has nothing, nothing at all, missing. It is an immense privilege to work in close proximity to this major monument of modern art, and an honor to have known the artist. All who see it bask in Kelly’s brilliance and generosity of spirit.

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Written June 01, 2016 by Kristin Swan