PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Barnes Foundation is celebrating the first year in its new home by mounting its first-ever solo artist exhibition: a group of five large wall sculptures by celebrated American artist Ellsworth Kelly.
The Barnes' first contemporary art exhibition in 90 years and one of more than a dozen exhibits worldwide celebrating Kelly's 90th birthday, it also marks a homecoming of sorts for one of Kelly's earliest and most important works: "Sculpture for a Large Wall," which was commissioned for a downtown Philadelphia building and displayed for four decades after its 1957 installation.
The 65-foot-long sculpture of 104 anodized aluminum panels was removed during renovations and sold, much to the shock and dismay of the local arts community. It was purchased in 1998 by cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder and promptly donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has loaned the piece to the Barnes for the show "Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall," on view from May 4 to Sept. 2.
Kelly, at the Barnes on Tuesday for a preview of the exhibition, said he is pleased that "Sculpture for a Large Wall" still looks fresh more than 50 years after it was made.
"You don't have to ask what it means, you don't have to ask what it's for. It just looks right, and I think it glistens," he said. "I'm surprised how new it looks."
He said the work, comprised of four rows of syncopated panels in varying forms and colors, was inspired by his time in Paris.
"I was always struck by the lights on the bridges reflecting in the Seine," he said. "It sparkles."
Originally given the simple title "Philadelphia Transportation Building Lobby Sculpture," the work was commissioned by architect Vincent Kling. The city's first piece of abstract public art as well as Kelly's first commission, the sculpture is "a manifesto work from the 1950s," said Barnes curator Judith Dolkart.
The sculpture was meant to be viewed at eye level but was installed above a bank of elevators so from the start, "it didn't work with the architecture very well," Kelly said.
He also believed the work wasn't treated with due care while the building was shuttered and awaiting a new tenant — it became a law firm's headquarters several years after Conrail left in 1993 — and he noted that a group of brass screens he made for the same building vanished in the 1960s.
"I'm sorry that it had to be taken away from Philadelphia but the building had changed," he said. "When it's public work, sometimes you have to fight for it."
Also in the exhibit are four other large Kelly wall sculptures dating from 1986 to 2012, as well several drawings that were studies for the Philadelphia work.
Kelly was commissioned to create a sculpture for The Barnes Foundation, which relocated its world-renowned collection a year ago from its longtime home in suburban Merion to a new building near the Philadelphia Museum of Art after a long legal battle. The 40-foot stainless steel sculpture called "The Barnes Totem" stands at the head of a reflecting pool on the north side of the building.
Barnes Foundation: http://www.barnesfoundation.org