Ellsworth Kelly

Purple Red Gray Orange (Violet Rouge Gris Orange)


In Tate Modern

Ellsworth Kelly 1923–2015
Original title
Violet Rouge Gris Orange
Lithograph on paper
Support: 1309 × 5727 mm
frame: 1389 × 5753 × 77 mm
Presented by Jack Shear in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota and ARTIST ROOMS (Tate Americas Foundation) 2017
On long term loan


This large-scale lithograph depicts a row of four geometric forms in different colours set against a white ground. They are, from left to right, a purple irregular diamond or offset square, a red distorted triangle, a dark grey segment of a circle and an orange segment of a circle. At almost six metres in length, Purple Red Gray Orange is considered to be the largest single-sheet lithograph ever made. Its large scale gives it the presence and impact of Kelly’s paintings, underlining the significance of printmaking in his work as a whole. Another large-scale print from 2001, Blue Black Red Green (Tate L04119), shows Kelly’s return to a similar linear arrangement of four loosely geometric forms many years later, demonstrating his ongoing interest in such themes throughout his career.

Kelly began a serious engagement with printmaking in the mid-1960s when he was already established as an important American painter and sculptor. In 1964 he exhibited in Paris at Galerie Maeght, whose owners, Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, were also publishers of fine art books and prints. They helped Kelly to produce his first print series, Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs 1964–6 (Tate L04089–L04115). It was at this time that the artist also created his first group of plant lithographs. From then on Kelly collaborated primarily with Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, an artists’ workshop and publisher of limited edition prints and sculptures. Kelly created more than 300 editions. Though he experimented with different methods, lithography was his medium of choice.

Before creating a painting, sculpture or print, Kelly would often make a collage or drawing. The artist would archive these drawings and return to the initial concepts several years later. He would often create a composition first as a painting, and then as a print. Though aesthetically and compositionally similar to his paintings, the lithographs are nonetheless an autonomous part of his oeuvre. Richard H. Axsom, author of the catalogue raisonné of Kelly’s prints, underlined the importance of this aspect of his work:

His prints, no less than his paintings and sculptures, have their own distinctive voice. 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. Varied in scale but consistent in their formal integrity, Kelly’s prints bear witness to his commitment to the phenomenal world.
(Richard H. Axsom, ‘Ellsworth Kelly as Printmaker’, in LACMA 2012, n.p.)

Kelly did not use the medium of print simply in order to reproduce his paintings and sculptures, but rather as a way of further exploring his ideas. Selecting the right ink mixture, format and paper colour in relation to the chosen motif was an essential part of his intensive collaboration with the print workshop.

Further reading
Ellsworth Kelly: Recent Prints, exhibition catalogue, Boston University Art Gallery, 11 September–25 October 1998.
Ellsworth Kelly: Prints, exhibition catalogue, Portland Art Museum, 16 June–16 September 2012.
Richard H. Axsom (ed.), The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly: A Catalogue Raisonné, Portland 2012, p.245.

Monika Bayer-Wermuth
March 2017

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