The essential eye of Ellsworth Kelly in ‘Line & Color’ at the Norton Simon

Details of “Blue Over Orange (Bleu sur Orange)”, left, and “Camellia II,” both by Ellsworth Kelly, on view at the Norton Simon Museum in “Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly.”
(Norton Simon Museum / Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur)

Ellsworth Kelly’s work, radical in its reduction of line and color, seems conceived of an immaculate eye. Indeed, Kelly eschewed mere composition. “I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures, I wanted to find them,” said the artist, who died in 2015 at age 92.

A visit to “Line & Color: The Nature of Ellsworth Kelly” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is an exercise in perception, and one ideally channeled through Kelly’s virtuous eye. The exhibition is halved to show dual paths that Kelly followed through his seven-decade career.

“Blue and Orange and Green (Bleu et Orange et Vert)” by Ellsworth Kelly, 1964.
(Norton Simon Museum / Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur )

“Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs” and “Suite of Plant Lithographs” were created in concert with each other in the mid-1960s, when the artist lived in New York City. Kelly made the suites with French publisher Maeght Éditeur and showed them at Galerie Maeght in Paris.


The spare plant and fruit drawings, freed from depth and shading to reveal essential forms, inform the equally guileless suite of shapes and colors experimentally arranged.

Ellsworth Kelly’s “Cyclamen IV,” left, 1964–65, transfer lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 35-1/4 inches by 24-1/8 inches; and “Camellia II,” 1964–65.
(Norton Simon Museum / Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur )

The plants are pale and delicate; their counterparts are faultless renderings of abstract form and emphatic color. Such clarity can leave you feeling cleansed amid a sullied world — a sentiment with which Kelly differed. Although we all desire a “sense of fixity” from art, he said, “what I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.”

This is essential seeing, meaning you must see the exhibition and perceive its essence when you do. The result is a kind of pristine awareness.

Two of Kelly’s monumental works are included. The nearly-30-foot-long “White Over Blue” was created for Montreal’s Expo 67 to hang inside a Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome. “Red Orange White Green Blue” (1968) abuts five monochromatic panels within one frame, an example of Kelly’s spectral paintings from 1952-72.

“Red Orange White Green Blue” by Ellsworth Kelly, 1968. Oil on canvas, 120 inches by 120-3/8 inches; each panel 120 inches by 24 inches. (
(Norton Simon Museum / Ellsworth Kelly Foundation )

“White Over Blue” turns nearly sculptural as the white plane hovers in part over the blue expanse. (It originally hung vertically, its inspiration a white blind drawn over a window.) On the opposite wall, the five panels are an unabashed presence surrounded by copious negative space.

The exhibition runs through Oct. 29.

“Black Over Yellow (Noir sur Jaune)” by Ellsworth Kelly, 1964-65. Lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 35.24 inches by 23.5 inches.
(Norton Simon Museum / Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and Maeght Éditeur )

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