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Barnes brings Kelly's 'wall' piece back to visit

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 12:21 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA — The Barnes Foundation is celebrating the first year in its new home by mounting its first 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 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 dismay of the local arts community. It was purchased in 1998 by cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder and 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” will be on view from Saturday until Sept. 2.

Kelly 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.

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 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.

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