For over fifty years, Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) has been recognized as a leading American painter and sculptor. His art of emphatic form and vibrant color--lyrical and serenely self-confident--is a finely wrought distillation of shapes observed in nature. Kelly’s prints, no less than his paintings and sculptures, have their own distinctive voice. They register equally important aspects of his vision: intimacy, delicacy, and ethereality. Integral to the artist’s vision as a whole, they bear witness to Kelly’s commitment to the phenomenal world. Ellsworth Kelly Prints, a major retrospective exhibition of the artist’s achievements in printmaking, will be on view in the main galleries at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from January 19-April 28, 2013.
Born in Newburgh, New York, in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn until he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. The majority of his time in military service was spent in Europe. From 1948 until 1954, he lived in Paris, where he absorbed the influence of Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, and Alexander Calder, among other School of Paris masters. Early in his stay in France, Kelly abandoned figuration in favor of simple geometric shapes in brilliant color, a visual language he has refined throughout his career.
Kelly has deployed his dynamic geometry of squared, angled, and curved forms to great effect in his graphic editions. Since the early 1960s, he has created more than 330 editions, over one hundred of which are represented in Ellsworth Kelly Prints. His first published editioned print was Red Blue, a screenprint from 1964. The curved red shape is an optical punch against a bright blue ground. Its parabolic edge, with great finesse and precision, runs tangent to the right side of the blue rectangle. Although Kelly has explored screenprinting and intaglio methods, lithography is his medium. One of his earliest lithographs, Red-Orange Yellow Blue is from a series published in 1970 by the renowned Los Angeles workshop Gemini G.E.L. An angled stack of rhombuses in primary colors are in perfect balance with the rectangular white sheet.
Kelly’s rendering of botanical subjects created with a lithographic crayon, along with his plant drawings in ink and pencil, also show the artist as one of the great draftsman of our times. In spontaneous line drawings, he captures the essence of plants, flowers, and fruits. The plant drawings are intimately connected to his abstract work—both in their simplicity of line and shape, and as a declaration of his reverence for nature. Kelly has called his plant drawings a “bridge” to his first abstract paintings and all of the work that followed. This connection can readily be seen in Grape Leaves III (1974), in which four drawn leaves, detached from their stems, are silhouetted in black. The resulting shapes are both representational and abstract.
Over a period of more than fifty years, Kelly has elaborated upon his plant lithographs and his family of geometric shapes in the abstract prints, enriching the latter with new rectilinear and curvilinear forms. He has also incorporated texture and gesture into his abstraction, drawing upon his interest in chance and also in the surfaces of both his weathering-steel and wood sculptures.
Despite the association of Kelly’s abstraction with bold color, black has featured importantly in his paintings, sculptures, and prints. Black is taken to epic proportions in the artist’s Rivers series (2002-2005). It is composed of four works: The River and River II, each printed on paper and mounted on aluminum panels bolted a few inches off the wall; The River (State), which is printed on paper alone and traditionally framed; and the States of the River—each of the eight lithographic plates used for the series printed individually and given the name of a major world river. In the Rivers series, Kelly, remarkably, merged the large scale of his paintings, the sculptural concerns of his reliefs, an interest in gestural surfaces, the techniques and poetics of chance, and his profound and abiding relationship to nature. In its conception, manufacture, and expressive richness, it marks an important achievement in the history of the modern print.
Ellsworth Kelly Prints coincides with the publication of The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly, an updated and revised two-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s prints, prepared by Richard H. Axsom, curator at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.