Ellsworth Kelly/Prints at the Portland Art Museum

by Erin Stout, September 2012

Works on view in the interior sculpture court at the Portland Art Museum inevitably serve as precursors to the museum’s main exhibition, Ellsworth Kelly/Prints. During the spring months of 2012,a few pieces by Joseph Beuys, including the large and visceral environmental sculpture Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch (Lightning with Stag in its Glare), could have influenced one’s interpretations of a retrospective survey of Mark Rothko’s paintings. Consider for a moment the juxtaposition of these two artists. Hanging from an iron beam, Beuys’s thunderous piece has the rough surface of an iron crag, with small excrement-like bronze forms moving out from its center. The psychological impact of this work engages an abject, animalistic, and highly tactile reality. Beuys’s Lightning draws one’s consciousness to the body while Rothko’s sublime painted realms encourage the viewer to dwell in the recesses of the mind. The former works with the surface while the latter strives to control it.

Beuys’s piece has since been replaced by Bruce Nauman’s Animal Pyramid, a life-sized sculpture constructed from taxidermy molds of long-legged mammals, as well as a group of hanging wax craniums, called Four Pairs of Heads. But the court continues to exude a heavily somatic note, with the main gallery preserving its unequivocal character. In the adjacent space, Rothko’s mythomorphic and objective abstractions were replaced with dozens of bright Ellsworth Kelly prints.

The Kelly prints are alive and evocative. In works like Colors on a Grid (1976), the seemingly haphazard movements of multi-colored squares resonate with an existential optimism, the blocks acting as prismatic marks on the ethereal “canvas of the universe.” Ultimately, the conversation happening amongst Kelly’s prints becomes latent to the viewer, the colorful shapes existing within the margins of thought and object in a collective realm of unspoken moments. The highly ephemeral experience of Kelly’s work was greatly enhanced by the contrastingly tactile Nauman sculptures that we had seen only moments earlier. This relational effectwas becoming a pattern at the Portland Art Museum, as it had come about with the prior Beuys/Rothko pairing.

Because of the uncanny parallels occurring in modes of abstraction amongst the four exhibits, I became enamored with the notion of the surface of a work of art and how it affects the body and mind. Even though both collocations represented artists who worked in the arena of abstraction in some capacity, the artists who were installed in the sculpture court shared a highly carnal sensibility. While the work of Nauman and Beuys is assertively present—emphasizing object surfaces and the psychological impact of materiality—the work of Rothko and Kelly is ethereal. This initial observation is not to be taken for granted, especially when one considers the vast language of abstraction that is so often categorically presented in an attempt to understand aesthetic sensibilities in contemporary art. A juxtaposition of the physicality of the surface becomes incredibly important when we understand that the notion of the surface is acutely present and emphasized in artistic languages of abstraction. It is essentially a language of presence, a mode of worldly interaction that strives to come to terms with concurrent levels of existential realities. There is the implied surface and the actual one, and there are degrees to which either one is objectively and subjectively activated.

My impressions regarding the dynamics of the abstracted surface came as a direct reaction to Kelly’s own words, which are appropriately featured on the first page of the exhibition pamphlet: “In my work, I don’t want you to look at the surface; I want you to look at the form, the relationships.” What Kelly attempts is to leave us with an arguably accurate definition of artistic abstraction: (formal) relationships.

In an exhibition solely devoted to his prints, Kelly’s quote is key to understanding what makes this collection of work so compelling. Although involved with articulating the sensory world around him, it becomes clear with these prints that their success greatly relies on the subtlety with which the shapes linger within the composition. Kelly creates work whose nuances are uttered across the surface in relation to one another, rather than the degree to which each shape asserts its individuality. These works are more about the suggestion of the form and color than about their actuality, causing them to function as if they are poetic words on a page. As prints, even their production is mechanized in a unique way, drawing them yet further from the phenomenological touch of the artist in the end, bringing them closer to the ghostly abstraction of an inexact notion.

To choose abstraction over mimetic representation is to develop such an alternative coded system of expression. We often refer to this codification as an artist’s “language of abstraction.” Abstraction usually presents a totemic vision of the world; it greatly relies on the notion of a thing rather than the thing itself, and prefers stand-ins or metaphors to actualities. In so doing, artists manage to create new realities or to redefine present ones that are relative to the artist’s observations of their own perceptual and conceptual realities, realities that are contingent upon relationships between objects and thoughts. Kelly was a master of multiple mediums, including painting and sculpture, so we can conclude that the motivation for engaging prints as a select medium was in order to express something that could not otherwise be articulated via a different means of production. In mastering the medium of printmaking, Kelly maximized the potential of his own language of abstraction by transcending the surface restrictions of painting and sculpture.

The exhibition at PAM follows one of the artist’s prints and paintings at LACMA, which ran from January to April 2012. There are no paintings at the PAM exhibit; whether that’s due to spatial or loan restrictions, this makes it no less of a successful show. Their absence merely serves to emphasize the exceptional character of the works presented. In his newly edited catalogue raisonné, which accompanies the exhibit and is quoted throughout both the PAM and LACMA programs, Richard H. Axsom is the strongest advocate for the profound value of Kelly’s prints, stating that “while his paintings and sculptures assert their totemic presence and tangible physicality, his prints register equally important aspects of his vision: intimacy, delicacy, and ethereality.” It was perhaps merely serendipitous that the precursory impressions of Kelly’s exhibit at PAM—the highly textural Nauman sculptures—serve to so appropriately situate this exhibition in the phenomenal trajectory of the history of art.

Ellsworth Kelly/Prints
16 June–16 September, 2012
Portland Art Museum