Ellsworth Kelly Prints
January 19, 2013 to April 28, 2013

For over fifty years, Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) has been recognized as a leading American painter and sculptor. His art of emphatic form and vibrant color--lyrical and serenely self-confident--is a finely wrought distillation of shapes observed in nature. Kelly’s prints, no less than his paintings and sculptures, have their own distinctive voice. They register equally important aspects of his vision: intimacy, delicacy, and ethereality. Integral to the artist’s vision as a whole, they bear witness to Kelly’s commitment to the phenomenal world. Ellsworth Kelly Prints, a major retrospective exhibition of the artist’s achievements in printmaking, will be on view in the main galleries at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from January 19-April 28, 2013.

Born in Newburgh, New York, in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn until he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. The majority of his time in military service was spent in Europe. From 1948 until 1954, he lived in Paris, where he absorbed the influence of Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, and Alexander Calder, among other School of Paris masters. Early in his stay in France, Kelly abandoned figuration in favor of simple geometric shapes in brilliant color, a visual language he has refined throughout his career. 

Kelly has deployed his dynamic geometry of squared, angled, and curved forms to great effect in his graphic editions. Since the early 1960s, he has created more than 330 editions, over one hundred of which are represented in Ellsworth Kelly Prints. His first published editioned print was Red Blue, a screenprint from 1964. The curved red shape is an optical punch against a bright blue ground. Its parabolic edge, with great finesse and precision, runs tangent to the right side of the blue rectangle. Although Kelly has explored screenprinting and intaglio methods, lithography is his medium. One of his earliest lithographs, Red-Orange Yellow Blue is from a series published in 1970 by the renowned Los Angeles workshop Gemini G.E.L. An angled stack of rhombuses in primary colors are in perfect balance with the rectangular white sheet.

Kelly’s rendering of botanical subjects created with a lithographic crayon, along with his plant drawings in ink and pencil, also show the artist as one of the great draftsman of our times. In spontaneous line drawings, he captures the essence of plants, flowers, and fruits. The plant drawings are intimately connected to his abstract work—both in their simplicity of line and shape, and as a declaration of his reverence for nature. Kelly has called his plant drawings a “bridge” to his first abstract paintings and all of the work that followed. This connection can readily be seen in Grape Leaves III (1974), in which four drawn leaves, detached from their stems, are silhouetted in black. The resulting shapes are both representational and abstract.

Over a period of more than fifty years, Kelly has elaborated upon his plant lithographs and his family of geometric shapes in the abstract prints, enriching the latter with new rectilinear and curvilinear forms. He has also incorporated texture and gesture into his abstraction, drawing upon his interest in chance and also in the surfaces of both his weathering-steel and wood sculptures.

Despite the association of Kelly’s abstraction with bold color, black has featured importantly in his paintings, sculptures, and prints. Black is taken to epic proportions in the artist’s Rivers series (2002-2005). It is composed of four works: The River and River II, each printed on paper and mounted on aluminum panels bolted a few inches off the wall; The River (State), which is printed on paper alone and traditionally framed; and the States of the River—each of the eight lithographic plates used for the series printed individually and given the name of a major world river. In the Rivers series, Kelly, remarkably, merged the large scale of his paintings, the sculptural concerns of his reliefs, an interest in gestural surfaces, the techniques and poetics of chance, and his profound and abiding relationship to nature. In its conception, manufacture, and expressive richness, it marks an important achievement in the history of the modern print.

Ellsworth Kelly Prints coincides with the publication of The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly, an updated and revised two-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s prints, prepared by Richard H. Axsom, curator at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Exhibition Sponsors

Support for Ellsworth Kelly Prints and related educational and outreach programs has been made possible by a grant from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.

Generous support for the Wisconsin presentation of Ellsworth Kelly Prints has been provided by the Madison Print Club; Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C.; Gina and Michael Carter; Ellen Rosner and Paul Reckwerdt; James and Sylvia Vaccaro; Gabriele Haberland and Willy Haeberli; Bruce Rosen and Diane Seder; Associated Bank; Hooper Corp./General Heating and Air Conditioning; Staff Electric Co., Inc.; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.


For Teachers
Ellsworth Kelly Teaching Page
This page provides analysis of Red Blue and Locust (Acacia), biographical information on Ellsworth Kelly, pre- and post-visit discussion questions, and a full-color reproductions for teachers. Effective as an introduction to a museum visit, the guide is also valuable as an ongoing classroom resource.

For Families
Ellsworth Kelly Prints Lets Look Family Guide
These fun, interactive hand-outs help children to think imaginatively about what they are seeing while learning about Ellsworth Kelly and his art. Let's look handouts are designed for families to use together and are available free of charge in the galleries.

For Families
Shape Artpack Insert
Stop by the reception desk in the MMoCA lobby and ask for the MMoCAkids ArtPack, the museum's hands-on discovery kit for exploring art. Designed for family members to use together, the ArtPack contains a variety of activities, including Shape, that promote observation and imaginative thinking about visual art.

related programming 

Friday, January 18 • 5:30–9 pm
MMoCA Nights
Celebrate the opening of Ellsworth Kelly Prints with this special MMoCA Night. Preview the exhibition beginning at 5:30 pm, then head to the lecture hall at 6 pm for a conversation with MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman, the museum’s curator Richard H. Axsom, and Jordan D. Schnitzer; works in the exhibition are drawn from the collection of Mr. Schnitzer and his family foundation. Live jazz featuring Lynette Margulies and Jane Reynolds, with guest artist Nick Moran, and hors d’oeuvres from Fresco will round out the evening. Free for MMoCA members / $10 for non-members.

Friday, January 18 • 6–7 pm
Collecting Ellsworth Kelly: A Conversation with Stephen Fleischman, Richard H. Axsom, and Jordan D. Schnitzer
A Lussier Family Lecture
Artworks on view in Ellsworth Kelly Prints are from the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his family foundation. In a conversation with MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman and curator Richard H. Axsom, Schnitzer will discuss his passion for art and explain what drew him to develop one of the largest private holdings of contemporary prints and multiples in the nation.

January 19–April 28 • Continuous
Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments
Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments traces the artist’s career, beginning with his early experiences in Paris that set the stage for the distilled and elegant paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints for which he has become internationally celebrated. Produced in 2007 by Checkerboard Film Foundation, Inc., this documentary film is 65 minutes in length and plays continuously in the main galleries Learning Center.

Sunday, February 10 • 1–2:30 pm
Kids’ Art Adventure
Discover Ellsworth Kelly’s expert use of line and shape drawn from nature. Then, get your arms moving while using what you have learned to make large-scale drawings and abstract collages of fruits and vegetables. Six- to ten-year-olds and their families should meet promptly at 1 pm in MMoCA’s lobby.

Thursday, February 21 • 12:30–1 pm
Richard H. Axsom on the Rivers Series
In this gallery talk, MMoCA curator Richard H. Axsom will discuss the genesis and technical development of Ellsworth Kelly’s Rivers series (2002–2005); works from the series are on view in Ellsworth Kelly Prints.

Friday, March 1 • 6–9 pm
MMoCA Nights
This MMoCA Nights gathering will pay tribute to Ellsworth Kelly with a lecture by museum curator Richard H. Axsom at 6 pm, a reading of original poems inspired by Ellsworth Kelly Prints at 7 pm, plus hors d’oeuvres, and a cash bar. In addition, artist Michael Velliquette will present a new sculpture, created as a finale to his 2012 artist residency in Kassel, Germany. With the artist’s assistance, guests will add design elements to the sculpture. Free for MMoCA members / $10 for non-members.

Friday, March 1 • 6–6:45 pm
Richard H. Axsom Discusses the Prints of Ellsworth Kelly
MMoCA curator Richard H. Axsom will present an illustrated overview of Ellsworth Kelly’s prolific accomplishments in print media. Kelly’s prints stand alongside his paintings, sculptures, and drawings as singular acts of perception. Like his works in other mediums, Kelly’s prints draw on forms distilled from chance observations of nature.

Friday, March 1 • 7–8 pm
Distilled from Nature: Poetry and the Works of Ellsworth Kelly
In this special evening of poetry, members of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets (WFoP) will read original works that delve into themes expressed in Ellsworth Kelly Prints. A portfolio of poems performed during the event will be available in the exhibition’s Learning Center. Distilled from Nature: Poetry and the Works of Ellsworth Kelly is organized by MMoCA’s education department with assistance from Gillian Nevers, MMoCA docent emeritus, WFoP membership coordinator, and award-winning poet.

Saturday, March 9 • 1–1:30 pm
Drop-in Tour: Susan Hoffman on Ellsworth Kelly Prints
Led by an MMoCA docent, this free guided tour provides tools to consider Ellsworth Kelly’s creative decisions and construct meaningful interpretations of his work. 

Friday, March 15 • 6:30–7:15 pm
Andrew Rubin on Ellsworth Kelly Prints
Andrew Rubin worked with Ellsworth Kelly while at Gemini G.E.L. in the late 1980s. Among the prints he assisted with are Green Curve and Red Curve (State I), both from 1988 and on view in Ellsworth Kelly Prints. Rubin will discuss these and other Kelly prints from the perspective of a master printer, illuminating the technical feats required to produce them. Rubin is an artist and a master printer for Tandem Press at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where, for the past twenty-four years, he has helped internationally recognized artists achieve their visions in print media.

Thursday, April 4 • 12:30–1 pm
Abstract Intimacies: Ellsworth Kelly
A Talk by Michael Jay McClure
The abstractions of Ellsworth Kelly can seem achingly austere. While not discounting their formal acuity, this talk will argue that the work diagrams spaces of profound visual intimacy. In particular, McClure will consider the way that point of view becomes manifest and proximate, while also explaining how Kelly’s geometric severity nevertheless suggests a “living” relationship between supposedly discrete parts. Michael Jay McClure is assistant professor at the UW-Madison, where he teaches the history and theory of modern and contemporary art.

Saturday, April 13 • 1–1:30 pm
Drop-in Tour: Donna Rae Clasen on Ellsworth Kelly Prints
Led by an MMoCA docent, this free guided tour provides tools to consider Ellsworth Kelly’s creative decisions and construct meaningful interpretations of his work.