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James Kelly: Seven Decades of Painting: From Bay Area Abstract Expressionism to New York’s Downtown Scene

David Richard Gallery, New York

Artist: James Kelly

David Richard Gallery presents James Kelly: Seven Decades of Painting, From California Abstract Expressionism to New York’s Downtown Scene, a survey of the artist’s lifelong commitment to painting as evident in 12 distinct representations from his oeuvre including: hard-edge geometric paintings from the 1940’s, California Abstract Expressionism from the 1950’s, Pop from the 1960s, Minimalism from the 1970s, and even his last painting representing the artist’s return to his own personal language of painterly abstraction from the 1980s and onward.

Installation Views

James Kelly (1913 – 2003) is an American Painter. He was championed by Walter Hopps and included in his first curatorial foray, the seminal Merry Go Round exhibition of 1955. In Los Angeles, Kelly was one of the original artists at The Ferus Galley. Kelly’s work is included in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitey Museum, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The main people in my group shows were Sonia Gechtoff, Paul Sarkisian, Edward Moses, (and) James Kelly[i]
-Walter Hopps

The Artworks and Career of James Kelly:

Every great artist needs a champion, and Kelly found that in the curator Walter Hopps. Hopps included Kelly’s work in his seminal first exhibition in which Hopps installed abstract paintings on the Pasadena merry go round. Kelly’s paintings were presented alongside works by Mark Rothko and Clifford Still which could all be had for three hundred dollars.

“In the summer of 1954, Hopps and [Jim] Newman [Founder of Dilexi Gallery, San Francisco] spent time together in San Francisco exploring the work of a group of artists, most of whom came out of the abstract expressionist milieu that had developed at the California School of Fine Arts (which became the San Francisco Institute of Art). These artists, such as Hassel Smith, James Kelly, Julius Wasserstein, Roy De Forest, Sonia Gechtoff, Wally Hedrick, and Jay DeFeo, exhibited at a few dynamic galleries in San Francisco committed to new, local work,… Hopps wanted to bring what he found in San Francisco to Southern California.[ii]”

“It was near Muscle Beach. It attracted the most totally inclusive mix of people—Mom, Dad, and the kids,… and other strange characters, and the patrons of a transvestite bar nearby. I got Ginsberg, Kerouac, and those people to attend. It’s amazing they came. Critics I’d never met before showed up. It had a big attendance[iii]”
-Walter Hopps

Kelly’s work would remain one of Hopps primary focuses as he continued to develop his curatorial repertoire. According to Hopps, “The main people in my group shows were: Sonia Gechtoff, Paul Sarkisian, Edward Moses, James Kelly, Julius Wasserstein and Gilbert Henderson.[i]” Hopps would go on to include Kelly’s work in the second Action exhibition. Between 1952 and 1956 Kelly’s work was also frequently shown at Hopps curatorial incubator the project space known as Syndell Studio

During this period Kelly would also teach at the University of California, Berkeley and exhibit in San Francisco at East West Gallery and 6 Gallery (where Deborah Remington was a founding member). At the same time, his work began to be exhibited extensively at a national level and was included in exhibitions at the University of Minnesota and the Richmond Art Center. He was included in the Pacific Coast Biennial Exhibition, which traveled to Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. More significantly he was included in five museum exhibitions in 1958, including the Vancouver Gallery, De Young Museum and San Francisco Museum of Art and further, this was when his work first entered the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Kelly would remain one of Hopps’ main artists, in 1957 Hopps formed The Ferus Galley with artist Ed Kienholz to exhibit contemporary artists from northern California and Los Angeles. Kelly was one of the original Ferus artists. Hopps was taken by the freedom found in the artists from the west coast, their work was quintessentially American; embodying manifest destiny, unbridled from the hewn traditions of east coast Abstract Expressionism and the historical weight of European painting. Rather their influences flowed out of surf culture, the Beat scene, jazz, and poetry.

The Ferus Gallery was of historical significance, it represented the burgeoning California art scene and was instrumental in introducing abstract and contemporary art from Northern and Southern California and New York to the West Coast art scene. Many prominent artists would have their first solo exhibitions here such as: Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ken Price, Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha as well as Andy Warhol’s first Pop art exhibition of Campbell’s soup cans.

The legendary gallerist Irving Blum would be introduced to Kelly’s work as he became a partner in the gallery. Blum recalls the early state of California’s art scene in the following excerpt from an interview held with the Smithsonian Institutes archives.

“there were three or four galleries in existence at that time (in Los Angeles)…the gallery that seemed to me the most provocative and the most interesting, the one that I identified with right from the very beginning, was a gallery that was started the previous year by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz, called the Ferus Gallery. They represented… artists all of whom were from California –some from up north and some from south. For example, people like Frank Lobdell from up north, Jay DeFeo, James Kelly, Wally Hedrick, Hassel Smith, Wally Berman certainly was part of the scene but he was from south; Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kaufman, Ed Moses, John Mason, Peter Voulkos.[iv]”
- Irving Blum

Kelly’s bicoastal success continued in the early 1960s with his work exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco and University of Southern California. Kelly’s skill as a printmaker earned him a Ford Foundation grant to work at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles that would prove fruitful and the prints he produced during this period would be acquired and included in the collections of: The Museum of Modern Art, The National Gallery, and The Amon Carter Museum. The collector Charles Dean recounted that, “James Kelly’s Deep Blue I (1952) is one of the most successful of the lithographs created by San Francisco Bay Area Abstract Expressionists.[v]” Back east Kelly began showing with the East Hampton Gallery and his first solo exhibition with them in 1965.

[i] Hopps, Walter with Deborah Treisman, The Dream Colony, (Bloomsbury, New York and London) pp. 46,
[ii] Allen, Ken, Reflections on Walter Hopps in Los Angeles, X-Tra, Fall 2005, Vol. 8 No. 1.
[iii] Obrist, Hans, Walter Hopps, Hans-Ulrich Obrist talks with Walter Hopps, Artforum, February 1996, pp, 40, 43, 62 – 63, 94, 193-194.
[iv] Blum, Irving, Oral History with Irving Blum 1977 May 31st – June 23rd, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, (Washington D.C.) pp. 4.
[v] Dean, Charles, Brilliant Mistakes: James Kelly’s Deep Blue I, Art in Print, Vol. 5, No. 5

About James Kelly:

James Kelly (1913 – 2003) is an American abstract painter, he was born in Philadelphia. After enlisting in the second World War, he followed in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac and moved to California to study on a GI Bill at the California School of Fine Arts where Clifford Still was a prominent teacher. In San Francisco Kelly’s work flourished, in 1953 he married fellow painter Sonia Getchtoff. Kelly lived in Fillmore in the same building as Jay Defeo, he was at the nexus of artistic activity in Northern California. >>>>>> Kelly was championed by Walter Hopps, who included him I his first exhibition in 1955. Known as the Merry go Round Exhibition, Hopps installed abstract paintings on a merry go round. Kelly’s paintings were presented alongside works by Mark Rothko and Clifford Still, which could be had for three hundred dollars. In Los Angeles, Kelly was one of the original artists at The Ferus Galley.

Art works by James Kelly are included in the permanent collections of: The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitey Museum, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Oakland Museum, The Norton Simon Museum, La Jolla Museum of Art, Worcester Art Museum, Crocker Art Museum, Amon Carter Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, The Library of Congress, The Fogg Museum at Harvard University, New York University, University of California, Los Angeles, and The JP Morgan Chase Art Collection.

© James Kelly Estate. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.

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