The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art could not have chosen a better way to bring in the new year. The retrospective print collection of Ellsworth Kelly is refreshingly strong. Some works in the show date back to his early success of the 1960s, while others are as recent as 2005. Although he is known for his paintings and sculptures, this show puts the spotlight on several series of Kelly’s printed artworks. The subject matter of the selected series is simplistic and bold. The pieces consist of his shape studies, line-drawn botanical studies and a river series.
Although there are some screen printed pieces in the show, Kelly’s preferred method of printing is lithography. These relatively large editions of no more than 45 to 75 prints per run prove Kelly’s technical ability and craftsmanship is clearly an essential characteristic and defining aesthetic of his work. The sheer scale and immaculate precision of these lithographs is truly something to marvel at.
Standing in the gallery, the viewer becomes surrounded by a serene, abstract landscape. In his series of shape studies, Kelly’s seductive color palette draws the viewer in. Rich tones of golden yellows, deep blues and glowing greens call for closer examination of the masterfully distributed hues. Oil-based pigments allow the luscious tones to radiate with intensity.
The conceptual flat surface where printmaking excels feels strangely defied, revealing optical depth and illusion. One print in particular, “Red /Blue,” from portfolio “Ten Works X Ten Painters” (1964), uses a similar color value in the choice of red and blue inks so that a scintillating vibrating line comes alive where the two hues meet. Like the majority of work in the show, this small but important specificity makes the print inviting and energetic while allowing it to remain simple and bold. This piece also has a significant place in the history of printmaking. Included in a series of art prints created by ten different painters, the group of works helped to promote screen-printing as a respected fine art medium.
A repeating theme of visual play between figure and ground create movement throughout all the works. In the shape series, prints consisting of only one form may create tension through its positioning on the paper, while other prints with several forms allude to a dancing movement across the field engaging the viewer in a sense of whimsy. Whether a subtle aversion of a convex line or the closeness of image to the edge of the paper, Kelly clearly displays his careful and deliberate expression of observations through the specific adaptations that his surroundings have inspired. In the “Rivers” series (2002-05), his use of vigorous brush quality was inspired by the sunlight reflecting off rushing spring waters of the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland. This more recent series seems quite different with its high contrast and photographic nature.
If you are not familiar with the work of Ellsworth Kelly, this exhibition will certainly spark your interest. The well-curated exhibition offers an in-depth glimpse of the artist’s mind via documentary film at the end of the gallery. However, the film is displayed in black and white. Because of the importance of color in the majority of his work, one could assume this lack of color was due to technical difficulties.
Thanks to donations from the Jordan D. Schnitzer Family Foundation and other contributors, admission to this exhibition is free and on display through April 28. This show boasts an overall happy, contemplative feel, with beauty in the littlest of nuances. If it is a shaky and sometimes uncertain world we live in, Ellsworth Kelly’s artistic vision remains steady and reassuring.