Installing Ellsworth Kelly’s Sculpture for a Large Wall

Ellsworth Kelly. Installation view of Sculpture for a Large Wall (1956) and Colors for a Large Wall (1951). Both works The Museum of Modern Art; gift of the artist. © 2012 Ellsworth Kelly

If you’ve visited the Museum in the past few months, you may have seen the special installation of F-111, the massive 23-panel painting that artist James Rosenquist made to wrap around the four walls of the Leo Castelli Gallery, at 4 East 77 Street in Manhattan, in 1965. Now, MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture is taking advantage of an opportunity to highlight another of its epically scaled jewels: Ellsworth Kelly’s Sculpture for a Large Wall. This work, completed in 1957 and comprising 104 red, yellow, blue, black, and gray anodized aluminum panels, sprawls across an expanse of 65 feet—the length of the wall for which it was originally made, in the lobby of the Transportation Building in Philadelphia. This sculpture will be on view through June 4 in the Museum’s Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium. In recent years, this interstitial space between galleries and between floors has doubled as a kind of stage set for a variety of performances and large-scale video installations at the Museum. Yet this blank slate of a space, with its soaring walls and natural light, is one of the few locations in the Museum with the wingspan to host a work as monumental as Sculpture for a Large Wall. For this special installation, the work is presented alongside two of the more than 250 others by the artist in MoMA’s collection: Colors for a Large Wall (1951) and Three Panels: Orange, Dark Gray, Green (1986). Together, these works offer a glimpse into the examination of color, form, and line at the core of Kelly’s artistic practice.

View of Sculptural Screens in Brass I-VII. 1957. Interior view of Post House restaurant, Penn Center Transportation Building, © 2012 Lawrence S. Williams, courtesy the artist

In the summer of 1956, Kelly was asked by the popular Philadelphia-based urban architect Vincent Kling to design a sculpture for the lobby of the Transportation Building in Penn Center, Kling’s brand new network of interconnected buildings and concourses in the area just west of City Hall. Kelly had just completed a set of brass screens for the building’s adjoining restaurant, on the recommendation of his friend Richard Kelly, a prominent lighting designer who had worked frequently with architect and MoMA curator Philip Johnson. Kling, impressed with the results of the restaurant project, proposed a second commission for the wall high above the central doorways in the building’s main lobby. Once Kelly settled on the final design—after some disagreement with the building’s owner over how many panels should be colored versus grey—he worked with lighting fixture fabricator Edison Price to produce the sculpture in a factory in White Plains, New York.

From left: Installation view of Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1956-57, at Penn Center Transportation Building. Photo © 2012 Lawrence S. Williams, courtesy the artist; Installation of Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1956-57, at Penn Center Transportation Building. Photo © 2012 Ellsworth Kelly

That seemingly simple final design produced a complex, multifaceted sculpture. The 104 panels, aligned both upright and tilted at various angles, are suspended between four rows of interlocked horizontal poles that hang freely from 10 perpendicular rods anchored to the wall. Reproducing this configuration presents a challenge to even the most experienced, skilled art handler, as MoMA’s recent installation proved. Luckily, the artist provided a highly detailed road map: numbered diagrams that correspond to coded components of the work.

Study for Sculpture for a Large Wall. 1956. Color plan; blueprint hand-colored with ink. 12 3/8 x 36 1/8. The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of the artist

Over the course of a solid work week, a team of four preparators sorted through a bundle of 30 poles, each assigned a number indicating its position on the wall. Rather than creating a scaffolding of horizontal poles first, into which the panels can be slid, the work must be fully installed, row by row, from the top down and from left to right. So, once the top row of poles was in place, the crew opened the six large crates holding the panels and began a similar sorting exercise. The top row’s panels were then suspended between the poles, one by one, according to a detailed diagram, and affixed at corresponding holes in the poles that determine the degree of tilt of each. As the crew moved along, they had to keep repositioning a set of temporary braces, which stabilized the uninstalled portion of the row while they carefully hung the panels between the free-swinging poles. Days later, after repeating that painstaking process four times, once for each of the work’s four rows, the crew suspended wires downward from the top row at each end, creating a nearly invisible straightening endcap on either side of the 65-foot expanse. And that was it! This mid-century moment, full of enthusiasm for the clean lines of modernist architecture manifested in many post-Depression urban renewal projects, was a particularly fertile one for public art in American cities. Many older, established artists, such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Isamu Noguchi, were steadily producing large-scale works that adorned corporate lobbies and public plazas across the country. The twin Philadelphia commissions were the first sculptures that Kelly, then 34 years old, had actually executed, though he had already been thinking about making art on a grand scale (or, as he described in a letter to his friend John Cage, “things much larger [than paintings]—things to cover walls”).

Installation view of Three Panels: Orange, Dark Gray, Green. 1986. The Museum of Modern Art; gift of Douglas S. Cramer Foundation. © 2012 Ellsworth Kelly

While living and working in Paris from 1949 to 1954, Kelly began to experiment with abstract forms created from monochromatic panes of color and line, organizing them in various compositions to test the range of relationships they create with each other and with their environments—a preoccupation that continues to fuel his art to this day. Although in Paris he was mainly producing two-dimensional canvases (one of which, Colors for a Large Wall, is also on view in this installation), he also made designs for large public works that he imagined inhabiting the city’s modernist facades. These conceptual explorations would translate seamlessly into three dimensions in his first major relief sculpture, a work located at the intersection between art and architecture. In 1987, the Philadelphia Transportation Building was sold. A decade later, plans were in place to completely reconstruct the building to look more like the surrounding corporate skyscrapers that had infiltrated the plaza over the years. Concerned about the fate of his work, and with the help of his dealers, Kelly bought the sculpture, after which Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder acquired it as a generous gift to The Museum of Modern Art. If you have a chance, please come and see it before June 4.