Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

We lost another of our art heroes yesterday. Ellsworth Kelly, known for his iconic works composed of color fields, passed away.

Luna with Ellsworth Kelly book

The above photo features the catalog from his large-scale solo show at SFMOMA in 2002-2003. The exhibition was a bright spot, both aesthetically and emotionally, in an otherwise depressing period of time and made quite an impression. I kept intersecting with his work during my numerous art adventures in California. His paintings featured large color fields, sometimes combined together into a single whole, while other times separated, as in Blue Green Black Red (1996) on display as part of the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA. I had the opportunity to see a large retrospective of his prints and paintings at LACMA in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This, too, was revelatory as it showed other aspects of his work, including black-and-white pieces and connections of his abstract style to nature.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]


It is still, however, the color fields that I most instantly recognized as his.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

Kelly himself resisted being described as “abstract” or “minimal” or any other label that intersected with his career.  But I think this statement quoted in the New York Times obituary describes his art very well, and is a fitting conclusion.

“My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said in 1996. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.”


Ellsworth Kelly and Metropolis II at LACMA

While in southern California for NAMM last month, I made a point of stopping at the LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The museum and the trip to get there through downtown LA were the perfect coda to the overload of NAMM. And by chance, it was the opening day for a retrospective exhibit of works by Ellsworth Kelly.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

I am quite familiar with Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings through SFMOMA (see my review of the Fisher Collection show from 2010 which featured several large pieces). His large panels in single colors with rectangular or curvilinear shapes are quite iconic, as are his grids of colored squares. But in LACMA’s comprehensive exhibition, which focused on Kelly’s printmaking along with some drawings and paintings, I was exposed to different and unexpected directions in his work. There was a room of minimalist panels, but all in black and white instead of his usual bright colors. There were also pieces with organic and complex patterns based on plants and rivers. In between there were brightly colored abstract works that seem to bridge the gap between the organic and the minimalist.

An example of the familiar and unfamiliar in Kelly’s work appears in the first gallery. Around the corner from a large set of four solid shapes is a piece with a similar curvilinear shape but a rougher and more natural looking texture.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next section featured Kelly’s studies in abstraction, influenced from his time in Paris in the 1950s. Here were see experiments with different pairs of colors on the same shape, with simple titles such as Orange over Blue (Orange sur Bleu). The shapes, rounded rectangles and arrows, seem manually cut and have the imperfections of natural (or at least handmade) forms. But through the medium of printing with different colors, they become more mechanized.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next room was the most surprising. All the works here were in black and white, something which I had not associated with Kelly up until this moment. One wall featured the same curvilinear or angular shapes as his more colorful abstract works, but in monochrome they are far more severe. But this is good thing. In monochrome, he plays with contrasts and positive and negative space with the shapes without the distraction of color.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

But even more unexpected were his monochrome prints based on natural forms, which were in this same room. He did a series of lithographs of botanical forms in the late 1960s that featured simple line drawings that capture the imperfections of natural subjects. I would never have guessed these pieces were his without the labels. More recently, he did a series of large monochrome prints based on the texture of the moving water in the some of the world’s most famous rivers.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

So how does one fit these in the context of Kelly’s more colorful abstractions? Certainly, the black fields can be seen as simply another color study; and the rivers can be seen as abstract but complex textures informed by nature. The textures of the rivers can be seen reflected in abstract piece Red Curve (State I) from the first room of the exhibit. The botanical pieces are the ones that are the most difficult to place in context aesthetically, the artist himself states that “the drawings from plant life seem to be a bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the paintings of 1949 that are the bases for all my later work.” It is possible to see the repeated curving shapes in his abstract work as inspired by plant forms.

The final room featured more of the style that I most associated with Kelly: angular solid fields and color grids.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

It was in this last room that another museum visitor came up to me and asked, “Why is this good? What do you see in it?” I’m sure I was gazing rather intently at various pieces which probably signaled to her that I had a genuine interest in this work. I did my best to try and answer her question, which seemed to be as much about minimalist artist general as Ellsworth Kelly in particular. For me, good abstract and minimalist art captures my attention and “arrests the mind” (with apologies to James Joyce). Additionally, all art and perception of art has context. There was the context of each piece, even if a single-color panel, within the greater body of work on display. There was context of my experience, and joy in looking at these works in the quiet gallery, the calming effect. There is also the execution, choosing the right colors and the right proportions for shape and size of each piece, that Kelly was able to do consistently. I’m not sure the woman was particularly satisfied with my answers. She walked away saying “I guess I just don’t understand why this belongs in a museum.” I did my best – I do truly want to share the enjoyment of modern art, and especially abstract art, with others, which is why I write articles like this.

Also on view at LACMA was Metropolis II, large kinetic installation by Chris Burden. It features stacks of highways weaving their way among densely packed buildings. A continuous stream of cars speed along the highways, some of which are six lanes across. The result is a frenetic pulsating vision of a future city, or an imagining of the pace and anxiety of a contemporary city. This piece is best experienced in motion, and you see a bit of it in this video:

This piece of course appealed to me as a person who loves cities and the urban landscape and who has a fascination with the patterns of roads and highways. Looking from above, the traffic is simply a current like moving water and provides none of the stress that one experiences on actual city streets. I can also admire the amount of work that must go into making something like this. The toylike scale of the installation also gives it a playful quality. It was just fun to experience.

Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings will be on display through April 22, and Metropolis II is ongoing. Both are worth seeing if you are in Los Angeles.

The Fisher Collection at SFMOMA: Calder to Warhol

I have been meaning to write reviews on some recent exhibitions I have seen set SFMOMA: the selections from Fisher Collection and New Topographics photography exhibition, both of which I have actually seen multiple times. This article covers the Fisher Collection, which will be closing this coming Sunday, September 19.

I have been spending some time thinking about what it means to write “CatSynth reviews” for a major exhibition like this about which so much has already been written. In the end, it’s about personal significance. It was really a microcosm of many of the exhibitions and artists that I have followed or discovered over many years – indeed, the exhibition included artists that i had first discovered through retrospectives at SFMOMA including William Kentridge and Chuck Close, or artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt whom I have gotten to know better through the museum’s programs. It is also an opportunity to explore what does (and does not) captivator me with modern art.

One of the things I find most compelling about modern art is the simplicity and sense of calmness I can feel in its presence. This is particularly true of the more minimalist and geometrically inspired works shown on the upper floor of the exhibition. This included those labeled formally as minimalism like Sol LeWitt, but also the large monochromatic panels of Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra’s geometric metal sculptures.

[Installation view with Janus by Gerhard Richter (1983) and multiple pieces by Richard Serra. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.]

There is something about this type of art that I find very comforting, especially in a large scale presentation like this. I can focus on lines and curves and colors and nothing else. I can get absorbed into the repeating variations in Sol LeWitt’s drawings and sculpture, or allow my mind to go blank in Ellsworth Kelly’s simple series of panels. (Perhaps this is what made the placement of Anselm Kiefer’s straw-infused works inspired by the Holocaust in the middle of the same gallery all the more jarring.)

[Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Black Red (1996). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]

Even Alexender Calder’s more organic forms fit into this category and were placed together with the others on the upper floor of the exhibit. It would be interesting to consider Calder’s curving but solid mobiles next to the intricate and delcate straight lines in LeWitt’s Hanging Structure 28c and Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud VIII.

[Alexander Calder, Eighteen Numbered Black (1953) . Sol LeWitt, Hanging Structure 28c (1989).]

LeWitt also touches on my interest in mathematics and algorithms (and technology) in art, and conceptual art, most notably in his Wall Drawing, which was created directly on the wall of the gallery in colored pencil from the artist’s specifications.

Gerhard Richter was a bridge between the minimalist and geometric art and the other parts of the collection. His Farben 256 with its array of solid-color rectangles was closer to the previously described works (and although I liked it I couldn’t help but think of a paint chart). Other pieces were more photographic – my favorite of these was Verwaltungsgebaude with its modern arctecture and motion.

The other direction that my artist interests tend is towards urban environments, including graffiti or industrial scenes. Cy Twombly’s large paintings in the exhibition feature repeated curving scribbles that remind me of the graffiti that I often photograph. The white scribbles on gray background in Untitled (Rome) reminded me specifically of walls I saw shooting photos in Warm Water Cove.

Twombly was placed along other works from the middle of the century. A large-scale piece by Lee Krasner was prominently featured (I have yet to see a solo retrospective of her work). A canvas with bright blue by Sam Francis caught my attention. The permanent collection of SFMOMA prominently features works by Richard Diebenkorn, and I think I liked those more than his work in this collection.

In addition to minimalist and geometric works, I also tend to notice art with a playful or surreal nature, or things that are particularly unique. William Kentridge’s installation based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute falls in this category. He built an entire miniature stage with archival photographs and moving images set to selections from the opera. While much more elaborate and complex than the previous works, the performance was still very arresting.

Strictly speaking, there was relatively little photography in the exhibition (although many of the paintings seemed derived from photographic sources). Of the few photographs, the strongest was an image by Sophie Calle which depicted a decaying bed in a courtyard of an apartment building, and was accompanied by a rather morbid story. Another of the featured photos, John Baldessari’s Blue Moon Yellow Window, Ghost Chair was quite painting-like with its extreme contrast and colored overlays.

I certainly did not touch upon everything within the exhibition in this brief review, so those who are interested are encouraged to check out the online exhibition page, or visit if you are in the area in the next five days.

[The photos in this article can be seen on flickr.  You can also see photos by others tagged SFMOMA on flickr or via SFMOMA’s online communities page.]