VISUAL ARTS | James Kielkopf, unsung hero of local art, gets his due respects

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A mini-retrospective of sorts at Thomas Barry Fine Arts, James Kielkopf: Then and Now showed the depth and breadth of one of the Twin Cities’ unsung artists. Kielkopf, an MCAD student in the mid-1960s, started showing his work right out of the academic gate with works juried into biennials at the Walker Art Center in 1966 and the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1967. His work was also included in the Walker’s impressive 1970 Drawing Exhibition.

Since the 60s, the St. Paul resident has explored drawings, paintings, sculpture and mixed-media collages. For the last two decades, Kielkopf has become probably best known for his shaped-acrylic-on-Masonite paintings that project just a whiff of Ellsworth Kelly. Flat and puzzled together, the chromatic paintings were inspired by such expansive themes as the great rivers of the world. At the time, this work seemed at odds with much of the sturm und drang neo-Expressionist art world, but their compositional rigor seduced the eye (and the intellect) if enough time was afforded for their review.

On view were a cache of Kielkopf’s untitled graphite-on-paper drawings from the early 1970s. (Or should I say “drop-dead drawings”?) Kielkopf can seem like an emotional cousin of Sol LeWitt, and not only do these woks reflect the minimalist aesthetic of the time, they are also technical wonders. Purely conceptual with an atmospheric attitude, they also function as a perceptual training ground for understanding positive and negative space, pattern and solid form, and the power of repetition.

Related to the drawings are two untitled sculptures constructed from soldered wire and screen. Delicate and open-air as if a modernist birdcage, they unexpectedly command the space around them. One, made from a geometric post-and lintel construction, is filled with a biomorphic spray of tendril-like wires with crimson tips that that suggest the inner workings of a molecular structure. This play between a rigid, geometric exterior and a curvilinear interior is subtle but dramatic. The fact that both sculptures are capable of a restrained movement adds to their mystique.

Completely surprising are three small, square shadow boxes, one from 1967 and two from 1969, whose imagery suggests the elegant wit of the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte or the European inflection of his younger compatriot Marcel Broodthaers. In all three, titled Hermetic #5, Hermetic Rain, and Expansion, the image is created through painting on successive panes of glass, giving each box a confounding dimensionality that is inexplicably eerie.

The “now” part of the show comprised more than a dozen modestly-scaled mixed media on panel works from three different series titled Squaring the Circle, Second Squaring the Circle, and Children of Leda, all from 2008. Heirs to Kielkopf’s earlier acrylic-on-Masonite paintings, these works are abstract, vibrant in hue, and possess a decorative lilt from the puzzling together and the repetitious curvilinear forms. Viewed as a collection, they accrue a visual weight less apparent in a single work. While the current offerings don’t have the conceptual austerity and intellectualism of Kielkopf’s more minimal earlier works, what they do share with the work some 40 years their junior is an underlying patience for realizing one’s ideas and a unique vision of abstract systems of form and color.

Mason Riddle writes on the visual arts, architecture and design. She has contributed to publications including Artforum, Metropolis, the Star Tribune, and the Pioneer Press. She is guest editor for the upcoming Public Art Review #39: Between Rural and Urban, which explores public art in the suburbs.

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