In 1948, artist Ellsworth Kelly moved to Paris in order to be near all that European culture had to offer. He stayed for almost a decade, traveling to see museums and making sketches of frescoes and stone sculptures in the many cities he visited, something he was not able to do while he was stationed near Paris during World War II. He befriended fellow American artists while absorbing the artwork of the early 20th century, as well as European masters such as Arp, Matisse and Brancusi. In the mid-1950s, he moved back to the United States just as New York was becoming a central cultural hub. By this point, Kelly’s creative vocabulary had been established. His vision of abstraction reflected the world around him, rather than the emotional and process-based abstraction of New York artists such as Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning.
At the end of 1964, Kelly returned to the City of Light for a solo exhibit of his paintings at the Galerie Maeght. While there, he took advantage of the fact that the owners of the gallery were also publishers of artist books and fine art prints. He made his first significant foray into the medium of prints and multiples with two series—Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs and Suite of Plant Lithographs. Thus began Kelly’s lifelong relationship with lithography.
The fact that these two suites were created simultaneously is significant. Kelly wanted these two subjects of his art to be seen as correlative. The plant drawings informed the abstracted shapes, just as much as he saw abstract shapes in plants. “I did not want to ‘invent’ pictures, so my sources were in nature, which to me includes everything seen,” the artist once said. In the same way that he drew from plant material for the Suite of Plant Lithographs, he also lifted shapes from his everyday life to create the abstracted forms that became fodder for the Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs. The planar forms of a staircase and the grid of a window frame held as much potency as the plant forms he found in the garden. His artwork continued along these intertwined paths for the entirety of his career.
Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs was begun in late 1964 and exhibited in June of the following year. The flat surfaces and even planes of abstracted color proved to be a challenge for master printer Marcel Durassier, who was more accustomed to the linear nature of lithography. The precise output that Kelly exactingly demanded became the litmus test for all of his future printers. It has been said, “If you can print a Kelly, you can print anything.”
Suite of Plant Lithographs is a delicate study of natural forms. Kelly’s approach to the flowers, fruit and fauna is sparing. He does not focus on fine details but offers just the right amount of information to convey the general idea of a specific plant. He said of his work, “Leaves, grass, cracks in the wall, all the randomness of a million pieces and variations. This way of composing was endless and didn’t need ‘me’—they made themselves—it seemed nature worked for me using the laws of chance.”
Complementing this collection of lithographic prints in the exhibition are two large-scale paintings. White over Blue was commissioned for Montreal’s Expo 67 and originally hung inside the geodesic dome created by Buckminster Fuller for the fair. At nearly 30 feet long, the work blurs the line between painting and sculpture, as the white plane literally floats off the wall and over the surface of its blue counterpart. To show the artist’s working method for White over Blue, three preliminary sketches are on loan from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. The earliest of these, a relief collage, dates to a decade prior to the painting’s creation. It illustrates how the artist was already envisioning an object that was not quite painting, not quite sculpture. Scale is established in the second of the three sketches, while the third reiterates the fact that Kelly never deviated from his original color scheme of “white over blue.”
The second painting in the exhibition, Red Orange White Green Blue (1968), is an example of Kelly’s “spectrum” paintings. These five colors create a large swath across the gallery wall, as the artist once again presents an artwork that demands to be seen as both painting and object. Five separate panels, abutting one another, resemble a continuous surface; to continue the illusion, all five have been framed together as if they were one canvas.
Bringing these two lithographic suites and two paintings together, Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly demonstrates the way in which the artist flattens the world around him. Whether featuring plants or colorful shapes, Kelly’s oeuvre cements him as one of the progenitors of modernism.