Few artists have underlined the dynamism between organic and geometric forms as systematically and inventively as Ellsworth Kelly. This dialectical finesse shone forth in Mary Weaver Chapin’s lyrically curated “Ellsworth Kelly / Prints,” an exhibition spanning the 89-year-old artist’s history as a printmaker. Incorporating works from 1964-65, when Kelly created his first print edition, through 2005, the exhibition drew extensively from the collection of Portland-based collector Jordan D. Schnitzer and Schnitzer’s family foundation. It included many of the prints displayed in LACMA’s “Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings” earlier this year, as well as prints that will travel to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art next January and the Detroit Institute of Arts next May. Surveying from among Kelly’s 23 series and 336 print editions, the exhibition displayed an elegance befitting an artist who has devoted his career to exploring the permutations of form and color–an exploration that, despite its obsessiveness and rigor, has produced some of the most buoyant abstraction of the last half-century.
The exhibition opened with the jaunty rhomboids of Blue/Black/Red/Green (2001), its syncopated, schematic shapes recalling the famous plaques sent into space aboard the Pioneer spacecrafts in the early 1970s. The work’s cheerfully off-kilter forms contrasted with the stark color blocking of the Four Panels (1970-71) series on the opposite wall and in the grid-based diagonals of Red-Orange/Yellow/Blue (1970). This conversation between Gestalts continued within an open-sided sub-gallery displaying the totality of Kelly’s Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs (1964-65). As if in impish response to Mark Rothko’s hovering, dematerialized planes, works such as Blue Over Orange and Yellow Over Dark Blue placed convex quadrilaterals above one another with immaculate discreteness: saturated hues abutting one another on a razor’s edge, shapes never intersecting, hues never bleeding through.
Other series on view included the black-and-white Curves pieces of the late 1960s and early 1970s; States of the River (2005), based on the artist’s interpretation of the world’s great rivers; and a telling series of botanical etudes–calla lilies, sunflowers, grape leaves, and the like–spanning Kelly’s career and evincing the early influence of Matisse. The inclusion of the plant-based works afforded a glimpse into the worldly inspirations for Kelly’s signature hard-edged compositions, which have at times been misconstrued as coldly minimalist. Far from an ascetic nature-phobe, Kelly has consistently portrayed the relationship between natural and geometric forms not as adversarial but as symbiotic, a thesis nimbly demonstrated by this thoughtful survey.