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Art review: 'Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings' at LACMA

March 8, 2012 |  7:00 pm

Kelly Installation Gallery 3
You don’t need to be a film critic, or an English major, to know that movies and novels are more like apples and oranges than peas in a pod. It’s hardly uncommon to find that the film adaptation of a book is not as satisfying as reading it was. “I liked the movie but it wasn’t as good as the book,” people will say.

Something similar — yet significantly different — takes place in the visual arts. Like movies, lithographs and screenprints are often treated as lesser versions of paintings or sculptures, either inadequate translations of the originals or mere souvenirs that call to mind more ambitious, and expensive, masterpieces.

But that’s not always the case. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings” brings together 99 prints, 16 sketches, three paintings and one sculpture by the 88-year-old New York artist. Drawn mostly from the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, the sharply focused show has been organized by curators Stephanie Barron and Britt Salvesen. With lovely light-handedness, it demonstrates that Kelly’s prints are more like books than movies.

Each monochrome and multicolor abstraction is an intimate affair. Its best features are invisible from afar. The magic happens up close and one-on-one, when you settle in with a single print and get lost in its compact expansiveness, where Kelly has distilled his affection for everyday details. His prints capture the casual beauty of the visible world, intensifying its basic shapes, graceful contours and vibrant colors with seemingly effortless consistency.

The first four of the exhibition’s five galleries are filled with prints Kelly made between 1964 and 2005. Nearly one-third of the 336 editions he has printed are here. The selection is balanced and manageable: just the right size to reveal the breadth of his art while delving into its depths.

A typical print by Kelly consists of a brightly colored shape or two. Occasionally these shapes rest on blazing blue, sunny yellow or muted chartreuse grounds. But the vast majority are surrounded by the paper’s vivid whiteness. Think freshly fallen snow, only warm, its crispness undiminished by rising temperatures.

Kelly’s shapes are all his own: spare, simple and playful. Some consist of nothing but curves, usually gentle ones around which the eye moves slowly, content with the journey and unconcerned where it goes. Others are all no-nonsense geometry, their arrow-straight edges meeting at angles that make the shapes seem to be animated, subtly and sensually. Still others combine straight and curved lines. They resemble oddly proportioned slices of pie, convex triangles, squares squeezed into round holes and silhouetted letters of the alphabet, their profiles plump with possibility.

Kelly Installation PlantsSixteen lithographs, made between 1964 and 2004, depict the silhouettes of leaves, fruits and flowers: single sprigs whose swiftly drawn contours reveal Kelly’s eye for the unaffected dignity of simple things. The blurry, black-and-white surfaces of a seven works from 2005, titled “States of the River,” resemble out-of-focus close-ups of flowing rivers. Their swirling currents reflect light and cast shadows with the detail and uniqueness of fingerprints.

All of Kelly’s prints require the same sort of solitude and concentration that books do. Their pleasures are interior. At once subjective and cerebral, they unfurl in your head.

In the fifth gallery, three huge paintings and a big monochrome sculpture leave the internal world behind. Appealing first and foremost to the solar plexus, their sweeping expanses of saturated color pull you outside yourself. Each draws your attentiveness forward, into the space before you, and then upward, toward the ceiling, and beyond. Kelly’s works on canvas and aluminum are staging grounds for secular ascensions: uplifting encounters that buoy the soul, excite the mind and require faith in nothing but your own physical sensations and capacity to make sense of them. Kelly Installation Paintings

With no-nonsense pragmatism, the exhibition clarifies the relationship between Kelly’s intimate, interior-oriented prints and his physical, exterior-oriented paintings and sculptures. Into each medium, he packs the potential for great freedom, leaving viewers ample room to be moved and to move freely.

More art reviews from the Los Angeles Times

-- David Pagel

“Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.,  through April 22. Mon., Tue., Thu. noon-8 p.m.; Fri. noon-9 p.m.; Sat., Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Closed Wednesdays. (323) 857-6010, www.lacma.org

Images: All works by Ellsworth Kelly, installation views. Credit: From LACMA

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