Strolling among the 95 prints that make up his impressive 25-year print retrospective at the County Museum of Art, Ellsworth Kelly says: “This show is like coming home.”
Indeed, more than half the works shown chronicle Kelly’s close, 15-year relationship with L.A.'s Gemini G.E.L. (dating back to his first printing sessions in 1970). Collaborations with printing houses like Galerie Maeght in Paris and Tyler Graphics in New York are also shown.
The retrospective spans 1949 (a very fine nearly cubist distillation of a face) to around 1985 (enormous, technically challenging prints from the lush and gestural “St. Martin Series”). Included are screen prints, etchings and pressed paper pieces, though lithography predominates, showing Kelly’s preference for its ability to register taut but unstatic fields of bright-colored shapes.
Kelly, 65, garnered attention in the ‘60s when his geometry was aligned with post-painterly abstraction. As the show makes clear, that association is deceiving. Studying in Paris from 1949 to 1954, in close contact with the intuitive biomorphic shapes of Jean Arp, Francis Picabia and Alexander Calder, Kelly was distilling geometry from nature--a shadow on a staircase, the curve of a hill--long before hard edges hit the contemporary mainstream.
Stressing Kelly’s place outside rigid formalism, the show (which runs through Jan. 1) first commandeers us through early lithographed botanicals of beautiful spare flowers and fruits. Tooled from graceful black lines that are expertly nuanced, almost erotic, these works prefigure Kelly’s uncanny knack for plumbing the core of structure and translating it into interactions of line, area and edge.
Early, bright-colored biomorphic cubes from the mid-'60s seem like quotes from Arp, but on closer look, they already affirm Kelly’s career-long rule that whatever “flash” of nature inspires a work, the end result must be first and foremost perfectly calibrated, assertive shape. In one pristine abstract icon after another, Kelly harnesses figure, ground, edge and color to achieve this end.
From first Gemini G.E.L. prints through most recent works, we see on a more intimate scale than is sometimes possible in his monumental paintings and sculptures Kelly’s deliberate manipulations of “pure geometry"--he bows its edges, elongates its corners and alters its Euclidian proportions just enough to give shape an active, internal mobility not usually found in geometric work.
Unexpected as a wry smile creeping across the face of this otherwise serious artist, “Saint Martin Landscape” (1976-1979) is a fun, bawdy lithography and screen print of a voluptuous photo-realist nude embedded in a craggy, exotic landscape.
Through the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Kelly reduced the variables in his graphic lexicon even further, exchanging the bright colors he’s synonymous with for crisp, exhaustive square-on-square, rectangle-beside-triangle configurations limited to blacks and whites. These hold up with surprising elegance.
Concurrently on view at BlumHelman Gallery in Santa Monica (through next Saturday) are the shaped canvas “Medium Blue” (1985) and two excellent sculptures from the ‘80s that put Kelly’s pragmatism and versatile range in proper perspective.