In the United States, geometric abstraction has always had a life of its own. It descended directly from European movements of the early twentieth century, like Abstraction-Creation and Constructivism. But without the careful delineation of artists into discrete groups, nor the adherence to a strict set of rules, codes, or manifestos, which characterized the European avant-garde, the American version of geometric abstraction had its own vernacular—a looser, more freewheeling version of its earlier brethren.
One can place the work of Paul Kelpe right at the heart of the American interpretation of geometric abstraction. Born in Minden, Germany in 1902, Kelpe trained at the Academy of Arts, Hannover where his teachers included Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy. He was exposed to prominent early Modernists, including El Lissitzky, Naum Gabo, and Kurt Schwitters, the latter of whom was a great influence on Kelpe’s early work. Shortly after completing his studies Kelpe immigrated to the United States. He arrived in New York in 1925 and lived in and around the city for five years, before relocating to Chicago.
While there was plenty of room for the burgeoning abstraction movement in New York’s multifarious art scene, Chicago had yet to embrace it. Kelpe’s work immediately stood out amongst the abundance of Realist art that pervaded Chicago’s museums and galleries. The United States was still crippled by the Great Depression, and it was around this time that President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of his ambitious and far-reaching New Deal. Under the blanket agency of the WPA, the Public Works of Art Project was formed (later renamed the Federal Art Project) to offer steady employment to working artists. Through this program in Chicago, Kelpe first embarked on mural painting. Because of the predilection for representational art in his adopted city, Kelpe attempted to conform his early murals to those prevailing attitudes. Though his Chicago murals offer naturalistic renditions of both urban, industrial machinery and farm workers in agricultural landscape, Kelpe’s paintings were nonetheless criticized for their overtly geometrical nature and nebulous realism.
Paul Kelpe's Untitled (right panel of a pair), from the Williamsburg Housing Projects Murals, c. 1938, Oil on canvas, 98 3/4 h x 96 w inches, Brooklyn Museum, on loan from the New York City Housing Authority, L1990.1.3
Discouraged by this resolute and stodgy position towards his work, Kelpe returned to New York in 1935. He met fellow abstract artist Burgoyne Diller who was working for the Federal Art Project in New York. Diller hired Kelpe as one of four muralists—the other three being Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, and Albert Swinden—to make work for an ambitious new affordable housing project recently completed in Brooklyn: the Williamsburg Houses. (Notably, all four artists, along with Diller would all go on to become founding members of the American Abstract Artists, an organization that still exists today.) Its architect had been the pioneering American modernist William Lescaze, who designed the sprawling campus to afford its residents plenty of outdoor green space, and its apartment buildings to allow in maximum light and air. Each artist was asked to create two large wall murals, which would grace the shared community rooms of each building. Even amongst this illustrious quartet, Kelpe’s murals stood out. Where the other three artists tended to embrace the more rigid and aloof tenets of abstraction, the Kelpe murals are distinct in their earthiness. He was unafraid of using colors most other abstractionists eschewed, such as loamy browns, tawny beiges, and terra cotta reds. Unlike his contemporaries, who deliberately painted to achieve a flat effect, Kelpe’s geometry is nearly sculptural: it’s as if the viewer could almost walk around his shapes and touch them. His Williamsburg murals, which were recovered from the Williamsburg Houses and restored in the late 1980s after decades of neglect (and which now hang at the Brooklyn Museum), are often considered the masterpieces of Kelpe’s oeuvre.
The hand-painted pipe cabinet springs from this vaunted and audacious output. It stands at the nexus of design and fine art, blurring the line between the two. Kelpe has made gracious use of his unmistakable color palette, and in one of the panels has ingeniously incorporated the cabinet’s hinges and door latch into the painting’s design, reflecting his unconventional take on geometric abstraction. The shapes that comprise the individual panels seem to hover in space, nearly emanating from the piece of furniture in a tangible manner. In this way, they seem to prefigure the Williamsburg murals Kelpe would soon undertake, while also lending an Art Deco-like quality to the cabinet. The paintings are like distinct canvases that nonetheless complement each other, forming such a unit that one almost seems inconceivable without the other.