Ellsworth Kelly Centennial Celebration: Visit to Spencertown

To pay tribute to the artist’s centenary and his lasting legacy, the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation organized a trip to Kelly’s longtime home and studio in idyllic Spencertown, in Upstate New York. Museum directors, curators, and other art professionals who championed Kelly’s work—the Phillips included—were invited to spend a day at the studio and grounds, view exhibitions of rarely seen work and ephemera and the newly open Ellsworth Kelly Library, and enjoy a luncheon, all in celebration of the artist’s life and work.

Vesela Sretenovic—who in 2013 curated the exhibition Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009—and Bridget Zangueneh—who facilitated the conservation grant for Untitled (EK 927) from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation—represented The Phillips Collection. Vesela and Bridget share their experience.

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled (EK 927), 2005, in the Phillips’s Hunter Courtyard, Commissioned in honor of Alice and Pamela Creighton, beloved daughters of Margaret Stuart Hunter, 2006. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings, 2004-2009. 

Vesela Sretenovic, Director of Contemporary Art Initiatives and Academic Affairs:

“While walking around Kelly’s studio, the indoor galleries and outdoor grounds, it struck me that the key to experiencing the artist’s work is through a set of interrelationships, first within his own art among shape, color, volume, and space, and then outside of it among the object, oneself, and the surroundings. Being on the site of his creative life, in the midst of art, architecture, and nature only further enhanced that experience. The glorious spring day—May 16, 2023—will be remembered for the lifetime. It also brought back memories from 10 years ago while visiting the studio and meeting the artist in preparation for the Phillips exhibition that marked his 90th year. I remain grateful for these extraordinary opportunities.”

Ellsworth Kelly Studio grounds in Spencertown, NY

Bridget Zangueneh, Director for Foundation, Government & Corporate Affairs:

“It was the light that struck me. The Hudson River Valley sun filtered through precisely-placed windows, skylights, and scrims, above, below, and around, infusing the space with the clearest, brightest light. And the spaces. Open rectangular boxes filled with the bright light. And the art, the works that Ellsworth Kelly created in these spaces, seeing them as he saw them. It was profound. His creations—most finished, some not—were indoors, impeccably placed on walls; outdoors, emerging from the grounds as part of the landscape; and on screens with dancers in motion re-creating Kelly’s iconic shapes with their bodies. All of Kelly’s works, no matter where they were displayed throughout the estate, incorporated the same minimal elements of line, form, and color that are so uniquely his.

Bridget Zangueneh at Ellsworth Kelly’s studio in Spencertown

It was moving, personally and professionally, to be in his studio and on his estate in the presence of his widower and champion, Jack Shear, museum directors, artists, curators, and colleagues. Everyone there was a part of Kelly’s life and entrusted with carrying on his legacy.

Soon after I joined the Phillips in 2012, the museum was planning Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009 (June 22–September 22, 2013), an installation of seven large-scale works featuring a spectrum of colors and geometric forms that have dominated Kelly’s prolific career in celebration of the artist’s 90th birthday. It was featured in the gallery with 18-foot ceilings, the only Phillips space that somewhat resembles the artist’s studio—an open rectangular box with windows that shepherd in natural light—though I didn’t know that at the time. I’m not an artist, curator, or art historian, and much of “The Art World” was new to me. I appreciate minimalism and, on the surface, enjoyed the exhibition. And then I kept looking. And visiting and revisiting the panel paintings on each walk to the library, courtyard, or offices to look some more. At one point someone recommended that I also look at the space between the paintings. I’d never considered that approach and was astonished. How can anyone evoke artistry from “the space between the paintings”? Kelly did it masterfully, and I’ve never looked at them the same.

One of my stops in the gallery was less of a visit and more of a peek: Ellsworth Kelly was visiting. He was right there in the gallery with natural light observing the exhibition—his exhibition—and conversing with then director Dorothy Kosinski and exhibition curator Vesela Sretenovic, an excerpt of which was posted here on the blog 10 years ago. On the recent trip to Kelly’s Spencertown studio, Vesela underscored that with the Panel Paintings exhibition, and really all of Kelly’s installations, that placement is down to the millimeter. Unfortunately, because of his health at the time, he was unable to be present for the installation at the Phillips. His expert team, our expert preparators, and Vesela installed it with guidance from Kelly via Skype (Zoom wasn’t a “thing” yet), and piece by piece he perfected the precise placements his art required—and the spaces between, “using the wall as part of the painting,” he says. I didn’t stay long. I didn’t dare interrupt. I didn’t say hi. But I was there in my quiet way observing. That experience made a mark on me.

Since that time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation to secure and steward generous grant awards with Phillips colleagues and keep the foundation folks apprised of Phillips activities. But to be at the Foundation, experience Kelly’s studio and spaces, and hear from those who were part of Kelly’s life was deeply inspiring in a way that no museum visit, conversation, or letter could be. It was a full-circle moment, thinking back to my experience peeking into Panel Paintings 10 years ago. Though not an artist, curator, or art historian, I’m grateful to work with those who are, especially as we celebrate and steward legacies like Kelly’s.”

Artist and Community as Poet

Phillips Educator Carla Freyvogel on Lou Stovall’s poetry, and the poetry it inspired.

Many visual artists are also writers. Lou Stovall (1937-2023) was a touching example. He wrote love poems to his wife, Di. His commencement speech to the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s graduating class was delivered in the form of a poem. He also reflected on his love of nature in his elegant prints of woodland scenes with his uplifting verse “The Coming Yield” (1974):

The Coming Yield

I’ve known
some fields
I’ll bravely say,
For I have sown
an oat today.

Call it seven
you’ll hear me say
a direct route
is my highway.

Spirits high, help
Keep me gay
for I will surely
earn my pay.

I’ll sow an oat
each single day,
it helps to keep
me on my way.

It seemed fitting that as our Guided Meditation community reflected on Stovall’s vibrant collaged monoprint Roses IX, we considered a poetic response. April was National Poetry month after all!

Lou Stovall, Roses IX, 2011, Screenprint collage, 28 x 28 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Di and Lou Stovall, 2019

Sam Gilliam, "Red Petals" American, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., Acquired 1967.

Sam Gilliam, Red Petals, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1967

To enrich the inspiration, we placed Roses XI in “conversation” with Sam Gilliam’s Red Petals. The two artists were lifelong friends and collaborators. They both lived in Washington, DC, and had deep ties to The Phillips Collection.

So, as the two works were shown side by side on the screen, poetic responses flowed into the chat. With those words re-assembled below, we see that National Poetry Month found its expression in our Guided Meditation community that day.

Subrosa Erupting

Linear roses draped, two hearts flowing,
Disturbed flowers ascending, a red-black hole swirling.
Zoom in, zoom out
Zoom out, zoom in
Rhythmic dancing, harmonic singing, airy, meditative
Straight-laced, calculated, expansive, and free
Emerging, then blooming.

An extrovert? An introvert?
Confined or released?
Luminous, floating, and reaching
watery vibrancy emanating and surrounded
Expanding outward.
Choppy risings, bleeding, slowly bleeding…
Glory! Gory!
Dynamite explosion, submerged calm depth
Confined and released
A floating journey through the universe, then
Close-up landing!

A Sculpture Changes Over Time

On view in Pour, Tear, Carve: Material Possibilities in the Collection is a virtual reconstruction of Antoine Pevsner’s Construction in Space, a sculpture made of Celluloid which has changed over time.

Working with Plastics
Antoine Pevsner was born in Russia and immigrated to France in 1923. He worked in a Constructivist style, inspired by the increasingly industrial world. Pevsner and his brother, artist Naum Gabo, were pioneers in exploring new media. They became fond of Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) for its flexibility and transparency; Pevsner used it to make Construction in Space (1929). However, this plastic changes color and deteriorates as it ages. Both artists abandoned it in favor of more durable materials such as acrylic and glass.

Left: Early photo of the sculpture before it began to decay. Right: Current deteriorated condition of the sculpture.

Close-up images of deteriorated condition

Duncan Phillips acquired Construction in Space in 1953. Three years later, when it was requested for an exhibition in France, Phillips noted the work’s fragility. The artist wrote to Phillips that if he sent the sculpture to the exhibition at the Museé d’art moderne, he would make the necessary repairs to the piece. The work went to Paris and repairs were made, but the plastic continued to deteriorate. In 1979, the work was sent to an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Conservators noted its severe discoloration and made repairs with yellow tinted epoxy to reinforce the once transparent object. Upon returning to The Phillips Collection, the object was placed in a wooden storage box and not shown again because of its poor condition. A handwritten note from 1987 indicates that pieces had “deteriorated” and it “needs re-gluing.”

Isolating the Sculpture
In 1996, conservators recommended isolating the object from the rest of the collection so that the acid off-gassing from the cellulose nitrate would not adversely affect other works in art storage. In 2015, a custom box was fabricated for Construction in Space and it was placed in a well-ventilated space in the storeroom with acid scavengers to absorb the off-gassing.

Inside of storage box with acid scavengers (long white bags). The green/yellow strips indicate the amount of off-gassing from the plastic.

A Virtual Reconstruction
Because the sculpture cannot be restored or exhibited intact again, conservators decided to preserve the work’s original appearance by making a virtual replica. Stefan Prosky, a 3-D animator and technology artist, made a virtual reconstruction of the sculpture using 800 digital images of the work and also studying early photographs.