A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jan 22, 2013
Color, Shape, Chance and Joy at MMoCA
It’s always a privilege to walk through a Madison Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition with curator Rick Axsom. But previewing the museum’s newest show, Ellsworth Kelly Prints, with him last week was truly exceptional.
That’s because Axsom is a foremost authority on the nearly ninety-year-old artist, having followed his work for decades, worked with him nearly as long and written the catalogue raisonné of his prints.
The publication of a revised edition of The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly coincides with the exhibition, which was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and has made a stop in Portland and will continue on to Detroit and Atlanta.
While Axsom has known Kelly since the 1980s, he’s quick to focus on the artwork itself. “This is the perfect tonic for a cold winter,” he says, gesturing at the prints around him. Indeed, MMoCA’s main galleries burst with bold color and shape—and it’s significant not to separate the two terms.
Axsom calls Kelly one of the two great colorists of the twentieth century (the other being Henri Matisse), as well as a master abstractionist.
“Color is one aspect, and it’s certainly a central aspect, but it’s his choice of color and the way he juxtaposes colors,” he says. “Ellsworth has the equivalent of perfect pitch in color.”
While some viewers might mistake his work as being made up of a few primary hues, the truth is much more nuanced.
“There’s no one Kelly red, no one Kelly blue,” Axsom explains, adding that the artist is extremely sensitive to color—where one person might see one shade, he sees dozens.
But color alone does not make Kelly’s work; shape is just as crucial. “There should be some word like ‘colorshape’ with no hyphen,” Axsom says. And it’s what Kelly does with only shape and color that sets him apart, although the word “other” seems contrary to what he puts on paper.
Kelly’s shapes are abstractions of observations from nature—a shaft of light, the curve of a leaf—and play on the ideas of chance, random happenings and that the world is constantly changing. His forms are geometric but they’re their own form of geometry, imperfect in the mathematical sense and full of energy: Rounded forms nudge right up on the edge of the paper and uneven trapezoids tilt on their corners about to topple over.
Fittingly, it’s shape, not chronology, that organizes the exhibition. The show opens with a suite of twenty-seven color lithographs from 1960s, which provides the vocabulary of shapes and colors that Kelly uses throughout his career.
The Squares and Angles section showcases Colors on a Grid, a checkered screenprint and lithograph from 1976 that’s inspired by light flickering on a river. To create it, Kelly put paper squares in a hat, picked them out randomly and placed them on a grid. Doing so removed his personality and his hand, allowing chance to take over, Axsom says.
In Curves, a highlight is Red Blue, a 1964 screenprint. A parabola of red expands across the blue backdrop, just touching the far side. Axsom, who bought a print of this work as a graduate student in 1968, says the shape reminds the viewer of things that make that swooping motion, and it has a shimmering effect because the eye can’t focus on red and blue at once.
On the far back wall in the Eccentric Shapes section, Purple, Red, Gray, Orange is the largest single-sheet lithograph ever made, at eighteen feet across and weighing five hundred pounds. The four colorful, lively forms hold their own on such a grand scale. “They’re almost dancing shapes,” Axsom says.
Anyone who claims to not understand minimalist art should spend a few minutes with a single print, perhaps Red, a 2005 lithograph. The vibrant, four-sided shape does not sit dully or quietly on one of its flat sides. Rather, it tips on a corner, almost kissing the edge of the paper. Looking at this spirited form, you wonder, is it spinning, is it expanding, is it tipping? It’s certainly not static. As Axsom puts it, “There is no such thing as a boring Kelly shape.”
The exhibition offers other sides of Kelly as well. Since the 1940s, he’s drawn from nature and a corner of the show features a suite of plant lithographs. There are exquisite calla lilies and a beautiful line of grape leaves—a work that relates to a lithograph of black abstracted leaves.
The final section showcases black and white works, including Kelly’s River series of expansive lithographs inspired by world rivers. Dynamic and full of texture, they bring together the myriad influences—from chance to nature to abstraction—that have characterized the artist’s work throughout his career. They make the viewer pause to appreciate the details—and want to pick up on such elements in everyday life.
“This show reminds me of what it means to be human—and to be engaged in the world through the senses,” he says. “That’s Ellsworth’s gift to us all.”
Ellsworth Kelly Prints runs through April 28 at MMoCA. Those who have the chance won’t want to miss special programming featuring curator Richard H. Axsom. Visit mmoca.org for more information.
Images—of Red Blue, Colors on a Grid and Ellsworth Kelly and River II—courtesy of MMoCA.