Art

How Ellsworth Kelly’s Language of Abstraction Grew on Him

Kelly’s early sketches of the natural world would define his work across mediums and throughout his career.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Cyclamen IV” (1964–65), transfer lithograph on Rives BFK paper 35-1/4 x 24-1/8 in. (Norton Simon Museum, Gift of the Artist, 1969, © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur)

LOS ANGELES — Currently at the Norton Simon Museum, an exhibit focused on Ellsworth Kelly’s lithographic prints offers insight into how the late artist used nature as a foundation for a language of abstraction. Titled Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly, the exhibit centers on two Suites of prints the artist made in Paris in 1964 for a solo exhibition at the Galerie Maeght: the Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs and the Suite of Plant Lithographs. At the museum, they bookend two large-scale paintings, examples of the artist’s more monolithic, color field abstractions, and make evident the influence of nature on his art. “I did not want to ‘invent’ pictures, so my sources were in nature, which to me includes everything seen,” Kelly is cited to have said.

Kelly first spent time in France in 1943, where he served  during World War II; five years later, he moved to Paris. In these early years in his artistic career, artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Arp, and Constantin Brancusi became referents for Kelly, influencing the type of abstraction he would embrace. During this transition, Kelly began to make observational crayon and ink line drawings of plant life. These gestural sketches distilled the natural world into line and shape, and became a form of artistic study that would define Kelly’s work across mediums and throughout his career.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Orange and Blue Over Yellow (Orange et Bleu sur Jaune)” (1964–65), lithograph on Rives BFK paper 23-5/8 x 35-3/8 in. (Norton Simon Museum, Gift of the Artist, 1969 © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur)

After living in Paris, Kelly returned to New York. There, it became clear that the artist’s practice was a departure from the highly stylized, emotional abstraction popular amongst his artistic peers. His work was not based on a personal, individualistic expressiveness, nor did it reflect a system of affected design. His was a clear and concise language of abstraction, rooted in an artistic interrogation of plant forms, in particular leaves. Kelly’s sketches — in their pared-down, even minute expressions of line, shape, and color — are a prelude to the works in Line & Color.

For the two Suites, Kelly worked with prominent printer Marcel Durassier, initiating what would become a lifelong affair with lithography. As the exhibition text points out, the process of ‘lifting’ color blocks and line from his surroundings would foreground many of the defining characteristics of Kelly’s later, monolithic works, where natural form and abstract shape become one within the frame.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Red Orange White Green Blue” (1968), oil on canvas, 120 x 120-3/8 in., each panel: 120 x 24 in. (Norton Simon Museum, Museum Purchase, Fellows Acquisition Fund, © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation)

There are two large-scale color field works featured in the exhibit, “White over Blue” (1967) and “Red Orange White Green Blue” (1968), that demonstrate how Kelly’s artistic language eventually moved beyond the pictorial frame. Where the line in Kelly’s depictions of plant life functions as a tool for drafting a language of abstraction that ceaselessly considers the relationship between figure and background, in his paintings, sculpturally shaped canvases of a single color become the delineating form, and the gallery wall the background.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Blue and Orange and Green (Bleu et Orange et Vert)” (1964–65), lithograph on Rives BFK paper 35-3/8 x 23-7/8 in. (Norton Simon Museum, Gift of the Artist, © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur)

“White over Blue” is exhibited alongside three preliminary studies for the work, on loan from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. In one of the studies, Kelly lays a blue cardboard rectangle vertically over a paper background. On the rectangle, an overlapping, slightly longer white one perches. The three-dimensional collage of overlaid color planes challenges any sense of symmetry created between form and frame, and jumps off the paper at the viewer. The gesture is subtle and seductive, destabilizing the viewer’s experience and blurring boundaries between artistic mediums. The preparatory sketch demonstrates how line, shape, form, and perception — tools the artist found in his observation of the natural world­ — are converted into formal objects of study.

By the time the viewer reaches the room of plant lithographs, the culmination of the exhibition, the plants and fruits captured through the delicate curves and undulating weight of a single line are an almost breathtaking experience. They shine a light of brilliance on what could otherwise be perceived as a cold and meticulous pursuit of color fields, infusing the show with the life, energy, and mystery of the natural world.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Lemon Branch (Branche de Citron)” (1965–66), transfer lithograph on Rives BFK paper 35-3/8 x 24-1/8 in. (Norton Simon Museum, Gift of the Artist, 1969, © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur)

Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly continues at the Norton Simon Museum (411 W Colorado Blvd, Pasadena) through October 29.

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