New Museum by Bay At Least Has Matisse And Ellsworth Kelly

On a recent visit to California, I had my first look at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art-the first, that is, since the museum acquired a building of its own (designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta in 1995) and went on a widely reported spending spree to load up on the work of celebrity artists. This was not an encounter I was looking forward to. A few years ago, I had attended a press reception for Mr. Botta in New York where the assembled writers, architects and well-wishers were shown a model of this dubious building and were subjected to the kind of sales pitch that is customary on such occasions. After seeing the model and listening to the extravagant claims made on its behalf, I was in no hurry to cross the country to see the actual building.

I’m no longer shocked by the kind of museum architecture that lords it over the works of art it’s ostensibly meant to serve while offering few, if any, aesthetic rewards of its own. Nowadays, that’s what’s expected of a new museum building, and the only thing to be said in favor of Mr. Botta’s SFMOMA is that it isn’t another Frank Gehry romantic ruin. On the contrary, the design of SFMOMA errs in the direction of overreaching banality and boredom, with exterior forms too bulky for the neighborhood and characterless interior spaces occasionally punctuated by silly architectural conceits.

I was in the Bay Area on other business, but I decided to take a look anyway. I had a happy memory of the early Matisses in the museum’s permanent collection, and I was keen, too, to see the current exhibition devoted to the work of Ellsworth Kelly. I was less keen to revisit the museum’s other current attraction-the Gerhard Richter retrospective I’d already suffered through at MoMA in New York-but I took another look at that, too, alas.

Those early Matisses are quite as wonderful as I remembered them to be, and they remain, in my opinion, SFMOMA’s principal aesthetic asset. As for the Ellsworth Kelly exhibition, it bears a more direct relation to late Matisse, to the period of the large-scale color cut-out compositions. In some of Mr. Kelly’s work of the 1990’s, he appears to have reduced Matisse’s color cut-out forms to a single, large-scale, curved monochrome shape that addresses the eye less as a picture than as a wall sculpture-a reminder that the process by which Matisse produced his late color cut-outs has sometimes been described as “sculpturing light.”

It’s the great virtue of Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco , as this exhibition is called (it’s largely drawn from collections in the Bay Area, where Mr. Kelly enjoys a significant following), that it closely documents the artist’s development over a period spanning nearly half a century (1947-96).The first painting we see in the show is a highly accomplished, ultra-realist Self-Portrait with Thorn (1947), painted at the age of 24. It’s also the last painting in the show to feature a distinctly American style. The following year, 1948, the young artist took off for Paris to study art on the G.I. Bill.

Mr. Kelly remained in France for six years, and it was there that he embraced the modernist avant-garde-a Parisian avant-garde that differed significantly from its counterpart in New York in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. At no point in his development do the aesthetic imperatives of the New York School appear to have tempted his interest. The sometimes complex but increasingly simplified modes of abstraction he espoused remained linked to a current of Parisian aestheticism and hedonism that was firmly rejected in New York.

It’s for this reason, among others, that the Minimalist element in Mr. Kelly’s work-if indeed it can be called that-is not to be confused with the self-imposed anti-aesthetic of such doctrinaire Minimalists as Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and early Frank Stella. Even the most austere examples of Mr. Kelly’s color abstractions are derived, however distantly, from observed experience. The aesthetic process by means of which his abstract vocabulary is distilled from something observed in the material world may be too hermetic for most observers to divine. I think that in all the most recent work, it remains fairly elusive-but it’s the final result that counts.

Mr. Kelly has often been quoted as saying that he gave up easel painting because it was “too personal.” I’ve often wondered what this could mean. What could be more personal than the persistent, unvarying project of self-abnegation on a monumental scale that we observe in his own most ambitious abstractions? In some respects, he’s the most personal of all the Minimalists, for the current of Parisian hedonism that’s recaptured in his painting is anything but anonymous. Call it passive-aggressive, if you like: This is a pictorial style that’s ambitious to impose itself on our sensibilities and isn’t the least bit diffident about doing so.

Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco remains on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 5, 2003.