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Exhibition features the exquisite lithographic work of American artist Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly (American, 1923-2015), Orange and Blue Over Yellow, 1964. Lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 23-5/8 x 35-3/8 in. (60 x 89.9 cm) Norton Simon Museum, Gift of the Artist, P.1969.033 © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

PASADENA, CA.- The Norton Simon Museum presents Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly, an exhibition featuring the exquisite lithographic work of American artist Ellsworth Kelly (1923–2015). On view are Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs and Suite of Plant Lithographs—two bodies of work made by the artist in the mid-1960s, just as he was beginning to experiment with the medium. Seemingly different in subject and style—one brightly colored and abstract, the other simple figurative forms of plants and fruit—the two suites were in fact created simultaneously and in connection with one other. Seen together, and alongside two monumental paintings by the artist from the Museum’s collection, Kelly’s works demonstrate the way he absorbed the world around him and experimented with both line and color.

In 1948, Kelly moved to Paris to immerse himself in the rich cultural life of the city, something he was unable to do while stationed there during the war. He stayed for nearly a decade, traveling to cities throughout the continent to visit museums, to make sketches of frescoes and stone sculptures and to absorb modern art. He befriended fellow American artists living abroad, as well as renowned European artists such as Jean Arp, Matisse and Brancusi. In the mid-1950s, he returned to New York, just as the city was becoming a vital cultural hub. By this point, however, Kelly’s creative vocabulary had been established. His vision of abstraction reflected the world around him, in contrast to the emotional and process-based abstraction of New York artists such as Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning.

At the end of 1964, when he was a successful, mid-career artist, Kelly returned to Paris for a solo exhibition of his paintings at the Galerie Maeght. While there, he took advantage of the fact that the owners of the gallery were also publishers of artist books and fine art prints. He made his first significant foray into the medium of prints and multiples with two series—Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs and Suite of Plant Lithographs.

The fact that these two suites were created simultaneously is significant. Kelly wanted these subjects of his art to be seen as correlative. The plant drawings informed the abstracted shapes, just as much as he saw abstract shapes in plants. “I did not want to ‘invent’ pictures, so my sources were in nature, which to me includes everything seen,” the artist once said. In the same way that he drew from plant material for the Suite of Plant Lithographs, he also lifted shapes from his everyday life to create the abstracted forms that became fodder for the Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs. The planar forms of a staircase and the grid of a window frame held as much potency as the plant forms he found in the garden. His artwork continued along these intertwined paths for the entirety of his career.

Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs was begun in late 1964 and exhibited in June of the following year. The flat surfaces and even planes of abstracted color proved to be a challenge for master printer Marcel Durassier, who was more accustomed to the linear nature of lithography. The precise output that Kelly exactingly demanded became the litmus test for all of his future printers. It has been said, “If you can print a Kelly, you can print anything.”

Suite of Plant Lithographs is a delicate study of natural forms. Kelly’s approach to the flowers, fruit and fauna is sparing. He does not focus on fine details, but offers just the right amount of information to convey the general idea of a specific plant. He said of his work, “Leaves, grass, cracks in the wall, all the randomness of a million pieces and variations. This way of composing was endless and didn’t need ‘me’—they made themselves—it seemed nature worked for me using the laws of chance.”

Complementing this collection of lithographic prints in the exhibition are two large-scale paintings. White over Blue was commissioned for Montreal’s Expo 67 and originally hung inside the geodesic dome created by Buckminster Fuller for the fair. At nearly 30 feet long, the work blurs the line between painting and sculpture, as the white plane literally floats off the wall and over the surface of its blue counterpart. To show the artist’s working method for White over Blue, three preliminary sketches are on loan from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. The earliest of these, a relief collage, dates to a decade prior to the painting’s creation. It illustrates how the artist was already envisioning an object that was not quite painting, not quite sculpture. Scale is established in the second of the three sketches, while the third reiterates the fact that Kelly never deviated from his original color scheme of “white over blue.”

The second painting in the exhibition, Red Orange White Green Blue (1968), is an example of Kelly’s “spectrum” paintings. These five colors create a large swath across the gallery wall, as the artist once again presents an artwork that demands to be seen as both painting and object. Five separate panels, abutting one another, resemble a continuous surface; to continue the illusion, all five have been framed together as if they were one canvas.

Bringing these two lithographic suites and two paintings together, Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly demonstrates the way in which the artist flattens the world around him. Whether featuring plants or colorful shapes, Kelly’s oeuvre cements him as one of the progenitors of modernism.

Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly is organized by Curatorial Associate Tom Norris. It is on view in the Museum’s lower-level exhibition hall from June 1 through Oct. 29, 2018.

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