Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Plants, Flowers and Fruits: Ellsworth Kelly Lithographs

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Norton Simon Museum

As the title suggests, the Norton Simon currently has a display of Ellsworth Kelly lithographs.  The Plants, Flowers and Fruits have been installed into the Norton Simon’s small, first floor, temporary exhibition space.  The room, while only slightly smaller than my studio apartment, is packed full of 20 Kelly lithographs (all from the museum’s permanent collection).

Chaffing frames

On all of the walls the works are hung so close together that the frames literally chaff each other.  The result of this tightness feels like entering into a large coloring book: the stark black lines of the lithographs beg to be attacked by comically large crayons.

Gimme a crayon; I promise to color in the lines.

This coloring book can also seem like stepping into a monumental artist’s book.  The mass of white pages that make up this “book” are balanced out by the wall color: a strong royal blue.  Above each print, in white text, is a label simply stating the flora featured in each work (which is also the title): “Cyclamen I,” “Camellia I” and “Camellia III.”  With the addition of these words the oversized coloring book has been turned into abstracted horticultural study.

An almost-inconspicuous door, can you see it?

It seemed that there was an effort to create a special room for this exhibition, an effort that attempted to remove the room from the viewer’s experience.  The works are so large and packed in so tight, that the room seems to disappear, and one gets lost in blue.  This effort was not done without some fudging.  On the back wall of the room was a door that, along with its molding, had been painted the same royal blue.  This was the only inconsistency in the otherwise uninterrupted experience of the room.

Blue on blue—barely visible leaf

Another design element of the exhibition was the non-distracting, lightly-painted reproduction of leafs from one of the lithograph.  The subtle, barely visible leafs hid behind the white title of the exhibition.

Comparing lemons to lemons

The subject matter of the prints (fruits, plants and flowers) reminded me of the magnificent still lifes elsewhere in the Norton Simon and begged comparison.  A visitor only needs to walk a few steps to see Zurbaran’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose from 1633.  Or a few steps in the other direction and see Peter Benoit’s Flowers in a Glass Beaker from 1620.

Trompe-l'œil, or just barely recognizable?

The proximity of these baroque paintings to the Kelly lithographs creates a dialogue about the evolution of the still life in art.  At one end is the almost maniacal urge to render in life-like detail every vein in a petal, and every drop of condensation on a glass vase.  And on the other end are the Kelly lithographs, the subtraction of the baroque elements and the abstraction of the same forms.

– H.I.

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