Recently, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted an Ellsworth Kelly show. The exhibition spanned the length of his career and provided the museum with an opportunity to show off a group of Kelly paintings that were recently acquired directly from the artist. The rest of the show was fleshed out with works owned by the museum's trustees. A quick perusal of the show revealed a handsome body of work by an artist of supreme confidence. Any one of these paintings would have looked attractive in a home, office or institution. The local critic, Kenneth Baker, gave the show a sterling review, as did an admiring public. In short, there were no negatives.
But something was missing. After viewing the show a second time, and having the same reaction as the first, it became increasingly obvious that the success of Kelly's work was dependent on proportion, color, shape and placement on the wall. In other words, despite all of Kelly's natural gifts, his work lacked the one thing that would transport his work into the realm of the sublime -- a soul. To Kelly fans, it may sound like heresy, but it feels like his work is more about design than art.
However, the upward trajectory of his prices at auction would contradict this judgment. Kelly has a high batting average. His works have sold for increasingly large amounts, finally breaking the million-dollar barrier when the dual canvas, Blue Green, from 1968, sold for $1.2 million at Sotheby's during May 2001. That record was then eclipsed by a three-panel painting from 1968, Red White Blue, which went for $1.4 million at Sotheby's "Douglas Cramer Collection" sale in November 2001.
Another recent standout was the 1988 diptych Yellow Black, which sold for $577,750 at the same sale. While the market is always strong for prime works from the 1950s and 1960s, there seems to be equally intense demand for works from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Also, one cannot underestimate the strength of his gallery representation in Matthew Marks. Every Kelly show that I've seen in his space has been perfection.
Then why does Ellsworth Kelly receive only a "hold" rating? In this case, it's purely subjective. Once a painter has had a career that's spanned at least 30 years, and routinely brings in excess of $1 million for a major painting at auction, he's progressed to the big leagues. Living artists in this category include Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Brice Marden, Wayne Thiebaud, David Hockney, Chuck Close, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and Frank Stella. My guess is that each one of these artists will occupy a place in art history that exceeds the niche eventually assigned to Kelly. If that's the case, then Kelly is overpriced.
Besides being great painters, all of the above artists, with the exception of Kelly, have one other thing in common -- their work has a soul. What is a soul? It is an elusive quality that imbues a painting with a life force. The work is venerable, it has depth, it has meaning and it possesses an edge. The edge speaks of an artist who has been able to transfer his or her life experiences to the canvas.
It's not that Kelly's work doesn't have integrity. It does. But speaking for myself, I look at his work and find myself dissatisfied. Viewing a Kelly painting ultimately tells me little about the artist and his life experiences. All it tells me is that he's been able to master the formal elements of making art.
My prediction is that at some point art historians are going to re-evaluate his paintings. They will rank Kelly as an artist of quality and commanding decorative powers. However, I don't see him as someone who will go down as one of the greats. His market will follow. My take is that Kelly's prices have found their level -- admittedly at a high plateau. I just don't see them going higher in the future.