The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is one of the great pleasures of the London art scene. Its location, the size of the gallery spaces, and the consistently high quality of the exhibitions make any visit rewarding.
What is more, admission is free. At the entrance there is a work by the late Ian Hamilton Finlay and each summer a highlight is the specially commissioned Pavilion which this year has a particularly exciting design by Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond. If the Serpentine Gallery was in New York, it would have a huge cult following and would certainly have featured in a Woody Allen film.
Ellsworth Kelly is one of the greatest living artists in America. Born in 1923, he was trained in Boston but spent several formative years (1948-54) in Paris. This was a crucial period during which he decided to eschew what he referred to as "man-oriented art" and become an abstract artist. His purpose was to extrapolate shapes and forms from the everyday world and then to represent them according to their own dynamics in a new setting. One of his principal inspirations was Romanesque architecture and he realised that "if you turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract". Anyone who looks carefully and intensely can test this out for themselves. "Instead of making a picture that was an interpretation of a thing seen, or a picture of invented content, I found an object and 'presented' it as itself alone," Kelly has written. His art, therefore, is one of transformation and alembication.
' Kelly is a prolific artist and his oeuvre includes paintings, sculpture, collages, drawings, prints and photographs. That all seems very straightforward, but within each of these categories there is immense variety. The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery (until May 21) comprises 18 works made since 2002, but the overall effect is spellbinding. There are multi-panel paintings, reliefs created by overlaying canvases, specially shaped canvases that dance across the wall, and sculpture. Most of all, however, there is colour, which has an unforgettable impact on the eye. Colour in Kelly's work has its own spatial dimension. Pigments are applied mixed with white in many layers over three coats of priming. The medium is oil, but always with a matt finish to avoid reflection. The visual impression is so perfect that it is like looking into clear water or listening to one continuously held note of music. The creative act is deliberately impersonal, but that liberates the viewer, which is the whole point of abstract art. The precision of execution is matched by the consideration given to where the work is to be shown (Kelly has undertaken several special installations) as regards scale, background and viewpoint. The multi-panels, for example, form a single unit in which the wall behind is an important element.
Kelly's work is supremely articulate, principally because it is the "built" world that absorbs his eye. Cast shadows interest him as much as architectural types or features — "in shadows you are in a new country". Similarly, observing big ocean-going vessels inching past one another in a harbour may have suggested the overlapping canvases.
Most exciting of all is the breathtaking combination of colours as in "Yellow Relief over Red" or "Green Orange Yellow". Such juxtapositions give vibrancy, but do not jar. On the contrary, these paintings are positively irenic. And so, as the artist hopes, you leave with peace of mind restored and the eye sated.