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James Kelly

American
(1913–2003)

Untitled
1959

Oil on canvas
35.875 x 26.875 x 2 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1996.38

James Kelly is one of the most important second-generation painters to have come out of the San Francisco branch of the abstract expressionist movement. Born in 1913, just a year after Jackson Pollock, he was a good deal older than most of his colleagues in the “second wave,” the term often used for artists who developed their signature styles after 1950. His work shares that generation’s tendency toward high-velocity gestural improvisation, showing a close familiarity with the Manhattan-style action painting exemplified by Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. It would be a mistake, however, to view Kelly’s painting as a spinoff of the New York School with no sustaining ideology. This assumption ignores the powerful culture of spontaneity that permeated all of the arts on both the East and West Coasts in the 1950s—not just painting and sculpture but also the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker, the stream-of-consciousness prose of Jack Kerouac, and even the edgy improv comedy of Lenny Bruce.

Although his fellow painters in San Francisco tended to deny the direct influence of European modernism, Kelly’s acknowledgement of Vincent van Gogh is clear in this work. Recalling his first encounter with the postimpressionist, Kelly effused: “Van Gogh’s paint was alive [with] tactility . . . When I found him it was an explosion.” These words aptly describe Untitled (1959), which is indeed an explosion of gesture, movement, and emotion. Kelly’s paint is thick, sitting on the surface in high relief. Like his wife, the painter Sonia Gechtoff, Kelly wielded his palette knife in the manner of a pastry chef, producing creamy impastos with raised edges like icing on a cake.

Susan Landauer


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