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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art celebrates Ellsworth Kelly's 90th birthday with a special exhibition
Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum I, 1953; Collection SFMOMA, the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, and the Helen and Charles Schwab Collection; © Ellsworth Kelly.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- From April 20 through June 2, 2013, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art joined museums around the globe in celebrating the 90th birthday of Ellsworth Kelly, with Ellsworth Kelly at 90: Paintings from the Paris Years until Today. This focused presentation, organized by Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Gary Garrels, draws from the museum’s permanent collection and showcase six key paintings bracketing the artist’s sixty-five-year career.

SFMOMA has a long history with Ellsworth Kelly. The museum has hosted a number of exhibitions exploring his contributions to modern art and has collected his work, including paintings, sculptures, and drawings, since 1966. SFMOMA now holds one of the most comprehensive collections of the artist’s work of any institution.

Ellsworth Kelly at 90 offers the public a last opportunity to see a concentrated selection of SFMOMA’s Kelly works before the museum closes its doors for expansion construction and launches into extensive off-site programming in June 2013. When the museum reopens in 2016, several galleries will be dedicated to Kelly’s work, and with more than 40 Kelly pieces from the renowned Fisher Collection joining SFMOMA’s holdings, visitors will be able to experience the full breadth of the artist’s influential career. This exemplifies SFMOMA’s long-standing commitment to representing the work of key artists in depth in its collection.

“The buoyant quality of Kelly’s art, the clarity and assuredness of his shapes, and his use of exquisite, pure color or black-and-white counterpoint compositions have established him as one of the masters of abstract painting,” says Garrels. “We’re delighted to celebrate his career, especially at such a momentous time in the museum’s history.”

The earliest work on view in this exhibition, Self-Portrait with Thorn (1947), was completed while Kelly was a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the center of Boston Expressionism at the time. This early self-portrait, in which a 24-year-old Kelly holds an uprooted thornbush, is a reference to the self-reflective paintings of the late 15th-century Northern artist Albrecht Dürer. Soon after making it, Kelly abandoned figuration, expressionist brushwork, descriptive content, and illusionistic pictorial space, developing instead a vocabulary of reduced forms and distinctive color that distilled his unique way of seeing.

In 1948, Kelly departed for Paris, a 25-year-old artist intent on immersing himself in European abstraction. There he developed productive relationships with artists such as Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and John Cage, and began to focus on fundamental elements of art: line, form, and color. This presentation includes three key paintings made in Paris during that time. White Relief (1950), which is dedicated to John Cage, was one of Kelly’s first forays into making three-dimensional work. Cité (1951) was a breakthrough for the artist, who had begun experimenting with collage and compositions arranged by chance. Both of these ways of working would continue to be important aspects of Kelly’s work. Spectrum I (1953) represents the growing importance of color in Kelly’s work that began during this period, when he began to consider the role of color in spatial relationships and perception.

Derived from a 1952 collage Kelly made in the south of France, Gaza (1952-­56) is considered one of the artist’s last Paris-era works, even though he completed it after returning to New York in 1954. The four-panel painting’s large format and clear, bold expanses of saturated color mark a shift in his work that occurred when he left Paris for New York, where he began to devote even greater attention to the relationship between form and color.

Yellow Relief with White (2011), finished just over a year ago, is one of Kelly’s most recent paintings. The artist has visited the form of the curve in innumerable formats throughout his career. After creating his initial rectilinear adjoined canvases in the 1950s, he experimented with more eccentric geometric configurations such as shaped canvases. In Yellow Relief with White, a saturated yellow canvas appears in relief on the surface of a rectangular white panel. Linked to create a multisided whole, the two pieces give the illusion of a volumetric form.

Kelly kept many of his most important works in his own collection for many years. In 1998, SFMOMA curators spoke with him about acquiring a large group of paintings and sculptures that would represent the full range of his career. The museum, in tandem with trustees, purchased nineteen paintings and sculptures from the artist in 1999. The acquisition ranged from his earliest mature works to works from the 1980s, and included three significant early paintings given by the artist. Together with previous purchases and gifts, the 1999 purchase resulted in one of the richest and most comprehensive museum collections of Kelly’s work.

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