The finely mounted show “Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art affords a rare opportunity to see the 50 year arc of this artist’s commitment to editions on paper and to trace some of the high points of the Southern Californian fine art printmakers’ craft in the bargain. That Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) is one of the pre-eminent American artists of the post-war generation is accepted. A veteran of World War II, he spent a good part of the 1950s in France, absorbing the lessons of Jean Miró, Constantin Brancusi and Henri Matisse. With Kelly’s return to the States, he moved away from figurative painting into the crisp, carefully wrought geometries of his mature style. Like many of his generation, he took up printmaking in earnest in the mid-60’s, and has been a dynamic, prolific printmaker ever since. Through the largesse of contemporary print collector Jordan Schnitzer’s foundation, the full magnitude and importance of Kelly’s work in print media can be experienced in the LACMA show first-hand, alongside three representative paintings and one sculpture.
Kelly’s rigorous, finely tuned imagemaking translates well to the clean white sheet of the lithographic print. The paper itself forms a palpable negative space, which Kelly says is as important in his work as his reductivist organic and geometric shapes. While the clarity and consistency of these carefully wrought elements would seem to lend themselves to printmaking, the images are in fact deceptively difficult to print with absolute perfection. Anecdotally, the word around Gemini G.E.L., the legendary print workshop that has produced 336 editions for the artist, was: “If you can print a Kelly, you can print anything.” With his long career coinciding with America’s great printmaking renaissance, we can directly observe the ever-advancing vanguard of technological brilliance that characterized this period. The many remarkable prints here represent significant innovations in printmaking, developed by master printers specifically to accommodate Kelly’s focused artistic vision.
As Kelly had developed his very distinctive vocabulary before he started printmaking in earnest, the editions featured here display great coherence, with clear echoes appearing in works separated by nearly 50 years as is clearly evidenced in his botanical line prints (Figs. 1, 2, 3). Even so, there are identifiable periods, the most distinct represented by his first large group of prints, made in 1965 with Editions Maeght in France. This Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs, charged with remembered Provençal light, relies on an iconography derived from signage in a palette of primaries, offset by some of the most idiosyncratic tertiary colors of his career. Kelly’s vision for these prints pushed the technical limits of what this renowned print workshop could produce. Yet the product is astoundingly crisp, acting as both a coda for his time in France and a prelude to what came later through his long association with Gemini, G.E.L. and another sunny clime: Los Angeles.
From the late 60s through the early 70s, the veritable heyday of 20th-century printmaking, Southern California’s relaxed milieu and master printmakers exerted a compelling draw on a multitude of contemporary artists. The Norton Simon Museum’s recent exhibition, “Proof ” [see review in Art in Print, Vol. 1, No. 6], demonstrated just how pervasive the influence of L.A. printshops became, and how key their role in the American art of this period. Kelly recognized in these fearless Los Angeles printers the talent needed to achieve the vision he had begun to explore in France. Great masses of perfectly printed, complex mixed colors, as in Four Panels, were produced using the emergent plate and photo-lithography techniques. Kelly also employed embossing to great effect, the subtle relief and the faint haze of the inked plates acting as delicate counterpoints to his strong abstract shapes. The exhibition also includes some of his fascinating experiments with papermaking, such as Image V, Blue, in which Kelly entirely reinterprets his familiar themes. Here he substitutes for his usual sharp edges, equally deliberate, but irregularly smudged edges, which celebrate the blur and twist of the paper pulp. In other technical tour-de-forces, such as Colors on a Grid, screenprint and lithography are combined with perfect registration. The sophistication and complexity of the color matching in these grid prints is unparalleled.
Kelly’s prints from the 1980s have an almost magisterial quality. The great curves and arcs of his most iconic pieces are well represented here. However, this period also marks a fascinating reintroduction of more traditional lithographic techniques, such as transfer paper or the distinctive cloudy erasures of ‘deletion hones’ into his work. The images produced by these methods yield a shimmering interplay between closely aligned colors, such as the light and medium Cadmium reds of Red Curve (State 2) (Fig. 4), or create startling effects of depth as in his black-and-white Rivers series. One of the most astounding pieces in the show is the gargantuan Purple/ Red/ Gray/ Orange (Fig. 5), which, at 18 feet long and five feet high, is the largest print ever attempted at Gemini, and truly the equal of any of Kelly’s work in any medium. Given its scale, it is instructive to compare this large piece with the paintings featured in the show: where form and an entirely flat painted surface lend strength to the paintings, the subtle human touch inherent to the printers art yields a different sort of gravity, and perhaps timelessness, to the works on paper.
While Kelly’s proclivity for utilizing dazzlingly nuanced color is well recognized, this show also highlights the artist’s long study of the interaction of black and white. Using both printed whites and the negative space of the paper, Kelly expands the recurring themes of his work in a series of revelatory and unexpected ways. Also encompassed in this non-chromatic group are a series of Kelly’s much loved plant drawings. The artist has often commented on the integral role these plant forms play in his work, and, as in his French lithographs hanging in the adjacent gallery, the formidable legacy of Matisse in Kelly’s work is manifestly clear. (It is informative to visit LACMA’s recently installed La Gerbe, the important late Matisse tile panel donated by the Frances Brody estate that now hangs in the main plaza; it is a germane artifact to consider in the context of the Kelly retrospective). The Suite of Plant Lithographs, which is the first ensemble of this noted figurative theme in Kelly’s work, is a testament to the clarity and visual strength of these pieces, and their adjacency to the other black and white works underscores their alliance with the strict abstraction that characterizes the rest of the exhibition.
Ellsworth Kelly’s lifelong experimentation across a broad range of media has yielded an impressive and varied legacy. His printmaking illustrates a remarkably rich history of innovation and inspiration, much of which took place in Southern California. In Kelly’s own words: “I’ve been coming to this city for 40 years to make prints at Gemini G.E.L. I have made over 300 prints here. More than half are hanging at LACMA now. The sun keeps me coming back.” This show, so deftly curated by Stephanie Barron and Britt Salvesen of LACMA, is a fitting celebration of a monumental 20th (and 21st) century artist, in print.
“Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings” was on view at LACMA, 22 January–22 April 2012.