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Ellsworth Kelly

What's on in New York: Contemporary art at its finest with Ellsworth Kelly still strong at Matthew Marks

Also on show are Mark di Suvero’s massive sculptures at Gagosian, and Charles Simond’s unfired clay at the Joseph Helman Gallery

From Minnesota to mildest South London, via the Walker Art Centre and Art History at the Sorbonne, Linda Karshan has the sort of sophisticated, quiet background serious artists once cultivated. Her oeuvre is equally impressive in a mode that could not be less fashionable or more rewarding, dark jottings that shuffle gnomically between abstraction and figuration. Karshan has worked exclusively on paper for several decades using India ink, ballpoint, pencil, oil stick, glue and even footprints to make her marks. Skirting Surrealism (one of her admirers is Lutz Becker, expert on the movement), rubbing up against Abstract Expressionism and mining Minimalism, Karshan’s drawings trace a very personal version of modernism. They are also overtly and irrefutably good, which helps.

Her second solo show in New York at Dee Glascoe is called “Measure without measure” which nicely suggests the discretion of her creative ambition.

We are lucky to have Ellsworth Kelly and his “Relief paintings” at Matthew Marks. A relief from the kitsch of so many younger painters, a relief from the noisy streets of Chelsea and just a relief that the man is still producing such elegant work aged 78.

There is one new painting of 2001 presented here, “Red over red”, which is precisely that, both extremely red and equally overlapping, with an optical trick of making the identical shades seem different. Kelly still works in the same manner, crafting radically abstract work from the observed world, and in this case he was inspired by seeing two red construction flags in New York. There are six other relief paintings on display, including the last work he made in Paris in 1954. The gallery on West 24th Street is simultaneously showing “Gray”, a suite of, yes, gray paintings from the mid-70s which give Alan Charlton a run for his money in producing tonal variants on every sort of grayness.

Another major American artist still very much at the helm and producing signature new work despite advancing years is Mark di Suvero, who has two suitably massive (and massed) sculptures at Gagosian Gallery. Both of these works are dated 2001 and they dominate and extend the already excessive limits of Gagosian’s interior space. Di Suvero creates an industrial steel architecture whose scale and weight reveals its origin in expressive drawing, a “frozen music” with faintest aftertaste of charcoal and graphite in the air. While Di Suvero’s work is always impressive in the open (his orange totem at the Holland Tunnel exit seems almost neon in its brightness) it works best against the constraints of gallery walls and ceiling, playing and straining against such boundaries like a Chris Burden museum-machine.

Stephen Dean is an artist of much charm and magic with a constantly inventive eye and decorative panache. A French-American who lingers simultaneously in Brooklyn and Paris, his work is suitably cosmopolitan and seriously playful. His first show with Henry Urbach Architecture demonstrates the full range of his optical games. Dean understands colour and context instinctively and his exploratory visit to the Indian “Colour festival” of Hali has produced an extraordinary video fiesta which gives title to the entire exhibition, “Pulse”. (Shirin Neshat is simultaneously showing her own “Pulse” film at Gladstone, see p.76.) Dean’s “Account” sculptures are also on display, cheap paperback books stacked to reveal their chromatic dyed sides but not their titles, the sort of simple idea with rich results that any artist would wish they had thought of first.

The full range of strategies and subjects, objects and ideas produced by Robert Watts over his career has yet to be fully revealed despite the surprising number of shows devoted to the theme of his supposed obscurity. Just in 1999 the Museum Fridericianum presented Watts as “The invisible man of Pop and Fluxus” and now he is being made visible once more at Leslie Tonkonow. This show specifically deals with his use and abuse of photography, turning it into sculpture, fashion and furniture. With an artist as prolific and unclassifiable as Watts such thematic specialisation makes appreciation easier. This is, amazingly, the first solo show for Watts since a posthumous survey at Castelli in 1990 and gives a welcome sample of his witty variants on a whole body of late 20th-century art movements. Watts is also on display at the Pompidou’s “Les années Pop” and MoMA finally bought two important early works after showing them in “Open ends.”

Luhring Augustine has extended their exhibition of Christopher Wool as if to give us time finally to understand just how important an artist he is. Well, to quote the title of his latest limited edition book Maybe maybe not.

This ambivalence is apparent throughout his oeuvre, using the most basic, banal means to make statements of sly profundity, presenting entirely flat stencil texts and wallpaper curlicues with a deadpan nonchalance that belies our “readings” of such surfaces. This new show has works on paper and paintings on linen and cross-bred techniques from spray gun to rollers and silkscreen, shifting between gestural mark and numb blank. The only nihilist “Pattern and Decoration” artist so far, Wool subverts our pleasure in his designs by a sub-text of mutual manipulation.

How often one has lingered on the Whitney stairway enjoying that tiny, exotic clay village built by Charles Simonds in seeming defiance of the brutalist architecture around it. Perched for decades like a fragile bird’s nest this small sculpture has a resonance beyond its means and every time it makes one ask again “Why is Simonds not better known?” Now a welcome show of recent work entitled “is was”, not to be confused with “Tiswas”, is at Joseph Helman Gallery. Still using his trademark unfired clay these works use much smearing and suggestive corporeal references, the body as decaying temple rather than miniature house of yore. Simonds seems to enjoy hiding his work in the cracks of the corporate art machine, to be come across unexpectedly, and this must mitigate against the full blown retrospective his talent so obviously deserves.