Ellsworth Kelly MMoCA Collects


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Ellsworth Kelly, Red/Blue, from the portfolio "Ten Works x Ten Painters", 1964, screenprint, 1964.
Ellsworth Kelly. Photograph © Jack Shear.

Ellsworth Kelly's screenprint is abstract. It does not depict anything we might see in everyday life, yet all of the artist's abstract forms derive from shapes in nature that he finds compelling. Red/Blue suggests how the eye might catch the curve of a hill, a flower petal, a cast shadow. Kelly's art is about seeing. In Red/Blue, a strong red ovoid shape is angled and cropped on a bright blue ground. Kelly's image is a simple design, yet his choice of color and placement of shape hold our eye. Why?

First, our eyes cannot focus on red and blue simultaneously. This is what causes us to experience a shimmering edge along the red shape. As our eye goes back and forth between the blue and red, the red shape seems to gently bounce—motion is added to what seems static at first. If Kelly had centered the red ovoid on its blue background, he would have lost another effect. The red shape seems to be drifting down into the lower left-hand corner. Notice how the right edge of the paper seems to slice away an almost minute portion of the ovoid. Kelly tilts the red form and cuts off about a quarter of its shape to the left. This is an adjustment that has the curve of the shape grazing the lower edge of the paper and almost—but not entirely—meeting the lower corner of the print. In his careful positioning of the red shape, he stimulates our visceral awareness of "edge" and "corner."

In his joyful colors and assertive shapes, Kelly celebrates human vision. If we pause and gaze at Red/Blue, we catch ourselves in the act of looking.