Echoing Ellsworth Kelly in electrifying fashion

Artist's mural offers spirited homage

Charline von Heyl salutes Ellsworth Kelly's 'Orange White' on the Worcester Art Museum's wall above its Renaissance Court. Charline von Heyl salutes Ellsworth Kelly's "Orange White" on the Worcester Art Museum's wall above its Renaissance Court.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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WORCESTER — What if someone took a crayon to a museum piece? Painter Charline von Heyl did, in her own way, in a piercing and provocative new wall mural at the Worcester Art Museum.

Von Heyl, a German-born, New York-based artist known for her fresh take on abstraction, is the latest artist to take ownership of the monumental wall above the museum’s Renaissance Court. She has filled it with a recapitulation of Ellsworth Kelly’s “Orange White,’’ a 1961 painting in the museum’s collection, which will be on view starting in February in the museum’s new late-20th-century galleries.

Kelly’s painting, typically flat and cleanly geometric, features three orange lozenges stacked on a white ground. Von Heyl topples that configuration into a horizontal format and doubles the number of lozenges, which stretch across the 17-by-67-foot-long wall. The orange shapes make a modernist echo of the arched doorways in the Renaissance Court that’s defiant yet grudgingly respectful, like an adolescent strutting in front of a parent.

That same spirit ignites von Heyl’s next addition to the orange-and-white: black scribbles that look as if a kindergartener had come through and drawn across the mural. A serpentine, undulating central gesture reprises the rhythm of her lozenges, although with sharp angles and added flourishes such as radiating lines, a concentric triangle, and abrupt passages of dark, dense doodles.

The suggestion of violation is mildly shocking, but the image itself — the way it teases the orange forms — is electrifying. Raw scrawl collides with the simplicity, clarity, and polish of the Kelly quotation. One of Kelly’s hallmarks is the balance between figure and ground — the white in his painting carries no less weight than the orange. Von Heyl’s aggressive black lines pay no heed to boundaries between orange and white, and consequently they keep step with Kelly’s creed, dancing with but not dominating the bold orange-and-white pattern.

What they make of place Von Heyl’s painting is tailored to its site, with concrete references to the museum’s architecture and its collection. Down the hall, “Place as Idea,’’ put together by curator of contemporary art Susan L. Stoops, examines far less tangible delineations of place.

“The other title for this show is ‘This Is Not a Landscape Show,’ ’’ Stoops said in an interview.

Instead, this heady exhibit examines place through fracture, taxonomy, erasure, and the postal service, among other approaches. Place comes unhinged from the landscape, for instance, in Martin Kippenberger’s project, “William Holden Company, Postcards,’’ undertaken with an assistant, Matthias Schaufler. At Kippenberger’s instruction, Schaufler made a 300-mile trek through Africa, sending postcards designed by Kippenberger under the alias William Holden Company.

Those sent to Kippenberger’s New York dealer are on view. Images nod to motifs in the artist’s oeuvre, including birch bark. They’re stamped with oblique sentiments such as “Put your hand in the flowerpot and cry with us.’’ This is as much about Kippenberger’s puckish artist’s persona as it is about place, but it travels from an idea in Germany to a hiker in Africa to a gallery in New York, a concept mapped over three continents.

Robert Smithson and John Baldessari are two progenitors of “Place as Idea.’’ Smithson’s artistic interventions into the earth were, in their time (the late 1960s and early ’70s), a radical, politicized reinvention of landscape art, and the beginnings of environmental art. Three of his videos spool here, including the 1969 project “Asphalt Rundown,’’ in which a dump truck pours glittering black asphalt down a cliff in Italy; it is surprisingly lovely, and distinctly painterly.

Nearby hangs David Maisel’s aerial photograph “Terminal Mirage #215-9-4,’’ depicting Smithson’s legendary “Spiral Jetty’’ curling into the Great Salt Lake, itself an eerie hue of purple and red. Like Smithson, Maisel explores the way industry has written on and devalued the land. Across the gallery from Smithson’s videos, Julia Hechtman’s video “The Vanishing’’ features a single tree being slowly erased. The erasure is a haunting counterpoint to Smithson’s brawny mark-making on the land.

Baldessari deconstructs place in the 1982 grid of etchings “Black Dice.’’ He starts with a still from a 1948 gangster film, breaking up the image into nine sections. The fracture abstracts the bedroom scene, throwing some objects into high relief and flattening, distilling, or erasing others. Place, time, and narrative are all fragmented. Similarly, Uta Barth, in her photograph “Ground #74,’’ focuses her camera in the vague middle ground of a room; details blur, thrusting the viewer into an internal experience, unanchored by familiar signifiers.

Then there are the Bechers, Hilla and Bernd, who starting in the 1950s photographed the obsolescence of industrial sites. Their black-and-white photo grids such as “Blast Furnaces’’ don’t ground us in one particular place. Rather, the nine photos of furnaces, each with snaking, embracing ducts, and each of its own design, impel the viewer to look more closely than a simple industrial documentary photo would, and distinguish among these engines of industry.

Abelardo Morell also examines architecture, but through the lens of a camera obscura — effectively, a darkened room with a small opening, through which a projection of the outside world pours. “Camera Obscura Image of Cloisters, Lacock Abbey, England, March 13, 2003,’’ features the inverted projection of the abbey, which, although a real place, here reads more like a dream.

In this show, place is not as solid as landscape. It’s something of our own making, dreams, and beliefs — projections, if you will, like that of Morell’s camera obscura.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

PLACE AS IDEA Through Feb. 13


Mural by Charline von Heyl

At: Worcester Art Museum