A few years back at Gemini G.E.L., the print publishing workshop in Los Angeles, I was doing research for a catalogue raisonné of Ellsworth Kelly’s prints. The catalogue, published in 2012, was occasioned by a retrospective of the artist’s prints organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Kelly, an ambitious printmaker, had created at this point over 300 printed editions since the 1960s. He was first known, however, and is perhaps best known to most, as a painter of vibrantly colored geometric shapes.
In my estimation, he is one of the great colorists of the 20th century, rivaled only by Henri Matisse. Although arriving at a definitive style in France during the early 1950s, Kelly only came to the public’s attention in New York during the 1960s, helping to define a new generation of American abstraction. His allegiance to abstract painting notwithstanding, he is also a major sculptor and a master draftsman in ink, pencil and lithographic crayon of botanical subjects—contour renderings known generically as his “plant drawings.”
During my visit to Gemini, I asked to see a number of prints I had not yet examined in person. Master printer James Reid brought out Red, a lithograph Kelly produced in 2005. I had only seen it in digital form and was unprepared for my reaction when it was laid down on a table in front of me. The red shape seemed to jump off the paper; I could not take my eyes off of the lithograph. Like hearing the crack of a baseball bat, I knew instantly that Kelly had hit this one out of the park.
Red, a large-scale print roughly 33 by 30 inches, presents a sharp-angled trapezium—a quadrilateral with no parallel sides—that dominates the sheet on which it is centered. Its liveliness as an unwieldy shape is held in a state of dynamic equilibrium. There is a play of forms between the triangulated shapes implied by the unprinted portions of the sheet and the shape itself. But the most important exchange is between the skewed rectangle and the roughly square sheet of paper on which it rests. The shapes are calibrated to each other so that neither undoes the character of the other; the energy of the red shape and the stasis of the sheet hold each other in check; neither trumps the other. The misbehaving trapezium nonetheless twists and strains to explode out of the confines of the sheet, spinning off-balance on one of its corner points. Tensions are heightened by Kelly’s decision to enlarge the red shape so that its four corner points nearly graze the edges of the paper—witty near-misses, no collisions.
Kelly is a joyous colorist who revels in the power of color. No one celebrates the primary colors like Kelly. The radiant gathering of red, yellow and blue in a single work has become his color signature. Although his colors may appear drawn directly from the spectrum, there is no single Kelly red, yellow, or blue—or any other color for that matter. The exact red he uses in Red is critical to its success. Many colors go by the name of red. The red here is a bright vermilion or slightly high-keyed cadmium red, the result of meticulous mixings of several printing inks. The inks Kelly uses in his prints are not out of the can; nor, for that matter, are the oil paints he uses in his paintings directly out of the tube. What matters for Kelly is that the inks are mixed to his exacting specifications—and that they are lithographic inks.
Although Kelly has worked with screenprinting and intaglio processes, lithography has been his medium of choice. Kelly came to prefer lithography to screenprinting for the same reasons he prefers oil to acrylic paints on canvas. Screenprinting inks, like acrylics, can be loud, crisp, and flat. They tend to rest on the surface of the paper more than lithographic inks, which are absorbed; he sees the effect of screenprinting inks as too inert. Greasy lithographic inks have the richness of oil painting and an appealing, subdued lightness. Kelly likes the transparency and luminosity of these media because of the liveliness and radiance they lend his images; that luminosity is what gives the flat trapezium in Red its color brilliance and depth.
I think of Kelly’s visual intelligence as the equivalent of perfect pitch in music. When I make a good chicken soup, I smell chicken; when my German Shepherd smells my soup, she smells each ingredient individually. Kelly is like my dog. The story goes that once Gemini co-founder Sidney Felsen was standing next to Kelly in the workshop and pointed out a recently painted yellow wall. Asked his response to the choice of yellow, Kelly paused and said: “I see forty yellows.”
While on a visit in early 2011 to Kelly’s home studio in upstate New York, I noticed that Gemini’s documentation for Red listed an officially registered set of four color trial proofs, all so inscribed and signed by Kelly. (Color trial proofs are impressions made before the color to be used in the published edition is determined.) I asked to see the proofs, of which the studio had three. They revealed that Kelly had considered deep indigo, cherry red, and red-orange. Later I learned that Gemini had the remaining color trial proof in a bright brick red.
Although not without their color interest, all of these color proofs were rejected by Kelly in favor of the spirited, true red he chose for the edition. I saw why. Intuitively, I felt that color and shape in each of the trial proofs were at a standoff with each other. The match of color and form did not seem seamless, which it is in Kelly’s final choice of color. The fresh punch of Red’s final red lends its shape an animal vitality. There is a sharp awareness of edge as the trapezium is put into relief. And, the red we experience in Red would in no way have the same effect if it were divorced from its shape. Red creates a formidable presence that invites concentrated focus, delivering nothing less than intensified sensuous pleasure— resulting from a visceral experience of color and shape, which in unorthodox language can best be summed up as an experience of “colorshape.”
Kelly’s art connects us intimately to the world through the senses. Herein lies its great humanity. Our sense of color is enhanced, one could also say celebrated, through exacting choices. The lithograph Red is an inspiriting cocktail of color, light, and motion—a Tilt-A-Whirl for the mind and eye. The artist has said that the goal of his art is “lilt and joy.” This, Red amply achieves.