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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Overcast
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MMoCA shows how Ellsworth Kelly set the art world on fire
Ablaze with color
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Color is king right now at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. While the outside world is shrouded in white, MMoCA boasts a riot of color - and not just in its main galleries, where Ellsworth Kelly Prints runs through April 28.

The museum's major Kelly retrospective is complemented by The Force of Color, a smaller show highlighting Kelly's fellow travelers in color-based abstraction; rod-and-cone-frying video art by Simon Payne in the New Media Gallery; and the return of Mask, the 2008 installation by Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar that fills the museum's glass "prow" with multicolored ribbons spanning three stories. In short, if you need a respite from snow and subzero temps, MMoCA's got you covered.

It's no accident that Madison is one stop on the Kelly exhibition's five-city national tour. Although organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MMoCA's Richard Axsom has been involved from the beginning. Axsom, an emeritus professor of art history at the University of Michigan who has been a curator at MMoCA since 2007, is a leading expert on Kelly. Kelly ranks as one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century. He's making his mark in the 21st as well, continuing to work while nearing age 90.

Madison is the third stop on the show's tour. It was preceded by Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., the hometown of art collector Jordan Schnitzer, who loaned all works for this exhibition. The exhibition travels to Detroit later this spring and Atlanta next year. It's also connected to the publication of The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly, an updated and revised two-volume catalogue raisonné by Axsom.

"This project has been the most satisfying of my professional life," says Axsom, who has known Kelly and written about his work for decades.

Whether you are new to Kelly or revisiting his work, Ellsworth Kelly Prints is the kind of large-scale show that really helps you see what a particular artist is trying to accomplish. While viewing many of an artist's works in one place can sometimes amplify weaknesses (I felt this way years ago about a big Jeff Koons show in Minneapolis; its shallowness was depressing), it also has the power to elevate an artist and reveal the essence of his or her work.

In the case of this Kelly show, I began to feel that his work operates on two levels: an immediate one of bold color and shape, and a more meditative level in which subtle variations reveal their own importance.

"What seems so effortless and easy, but is so carefully thought out, is Ellsworth's wedding of color to shape," says Axsom.

In fact, the curator says he wishes there were a single word - colorshape - to signify this fusion.

"The shape and color are made for each other; it's seamless. That sounds a bit precious, but you really see it in his work," he says.

Playing with perception

Kelly's long and prolific career took off in earnest after World War II. The New York state native studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn until being drafted into the Army. Postwar, the G.I. Bill helped him pursue his studies, and he lived in Paris from 1948 to 1954. Here he met a number of modern masters and learned from their example. Given the geometric, pared-down aesthetic of Kelly's work, one can see how interactions with the likes of Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp and Alexander Calder have informed his approach.

While many think of Kelly as primarily a painter and sculptor, he's also been a printmaker for the last half-century. Of the numerous printmaking techniques, Kelly favors lithography.

"Lithography is his medium of choice because [lithographs] approximate qualities he loves in oil painting, like luminosity and richness of color," says Axsom.

The MMoCA exhibition presents a large slice of Kelly's print output. Of the 300-plus print editions he has made since the early 1960s, more than 100 are on display here.

The show begins with the complete Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs from 1964 to 1965. In this series, Kelly stacks color against color and shape against shape. For example, brightly colored, arrow-like shapes sit inside equally bright fields, and vivid ovals and rectangles nest inside larger rectangles. By repeating the same idea in different color combinations, Kelly plays with our sense of perception. Certain colors and shapes read as "heavier," like a large, black, rounded-off square sitting atop a more slender yellow rectangle.

The exhibition's next section covers Kelly's sharper, more refined geometry from the 1970s and beyond, including single-color, single-shape prints in new configurations, such as a fan shape or an elbow-like one. These prints, which are quite large, make a bold, visceral impression. Rich purple, emerald green and warm, fiery oranges and reds all call out to the viewer. In fact, Axsom considers Kelly to be one of the two great colorists of the 20th century, the other being Matisse.

He elaborates on this comparison: "It's deeply joyful and inspiriting, the way a Matisse can be, just the experience of color. There's an attentiveness there [due to the way the shapes hold the eye] that becomes spiritual in a very broad sense. This sensuous connection to the world, this link connecting you to the world through your senses, is very satisfying."

Like Matisse, Kelly wants his art to provide mental relaxation and pleasure for viewers.

"Ellsworth once said - and I so like this - that his ambition is to create art that has 'lilt and joy.' There's a potential here for viewers to indeed experience that," Axsom says.

Lyrical lines

The show's third section examines Kelly's black-and-white prints, including plant lithographs he created between 1964 and 2004. I find the earliest ones, particularly one of a lemon still hanging from a tree, the most appealing in their delicate simplicity. (New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl describes Kelly's plant lithographs and drawings as "efficiently lyrical," and it would be hard to top that seemingly paradoxical description.)

Rather than opting for hyperrealism or painstaking detail, Kelly distills his subjects - pears, grape leaves, calla lilies and so on - into just a few graceful lines.

"The genesis of his art is in nature," Axsom says, referencing not only the plant images but the ones that are seemingly pure abstraction. He describes the artist's ability to see essential forms in nature with laser-like precision.

In fact, in Axsom's Drawn from Nature: The Plant Lithographs of Ellsworth Kelly, Kelly is quoted as saying, "Since birth, we get accustomed to seeing and thinking at the same time. But I think that if you can turn off the mind and look at things only with your eyes, ultimately, everything becomes abstract."

Despite Kelly's love of color and his meticulous attempts to fuse just the right color and shape, the final sections of the exhibition focus on his work in black and white, including his Rivers series from 2002 to 2005. At first glance, the Rivers prints seem like a departure from earlier Kelly works in their dynamic, brushlike patterning. But Axsom tells a story of how Kelly saw the Rhine River flooded in the spring while in Basel, an experience that provided the kernel for this series - again reinforcing nature, abstracted, as the key to Kelly's art.

"The nature link is the essential Kelly," he affirms.

Defying description

Downstairs, in the museum's first-floor gallery facing State Street, the smaller Force of Color show fleshes out the context for Kelly's art. The 1960s saw the rise of highly colorful abstract art. Though a 1972 print by Adja Yunkers has a most un-Kelly-like title (the florid Third Dream of the Infanta Isabella), it shares with Kelly's work an attentiveness to the negative, unprinted part of the paper. In fact, the eye is drawn to the print's white space more than the cobalt blue areas.

Part of what makes color abstraction vital and even challenging - and worth experiencing on its own terms - is that it's the kind of art language struggles the most to describe. It's so purely visual, with little to no reference to the external world, that it provokes us to embrace the experience without attempting to layer a narrative upon it.

In other words, Ellsworth Kelly Prints offers a welcome chance for audiences to learn about Kelly by immersing themselves in his work.

As Axsom says, "The shapes, even the most simple ones, are never static. It's animated to an extent that you can just be caught by it and held by it. It's deceptively simple."

Color studies

MMoCA is offering several public events in conjunction with the Ellsworth Kelly Prints and The Force of Color. Highlights include a talk on Kelly's Rivers series by Richard Axsom (Feb. 21), a poetry reading (March 1) and a talk by Tandem Press master printer and local artist Andrew Rubin (March 15), who assisted Kelly at famed Los Angeles print studio Gemini G.E.L. in the late 1980s. Find full details at

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