Ellsworth Kelly

The River


Not on display

Ellsworth Kelly 1923–2015
Lithograph on paper on aluminium
Support: 1015 × 2767 mm
frame: 1015 × 2767 × 30 mm
Presented by Jack Shear in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota and ARTIST ROOMS (Tate Americas Foundation) 2017
On long term loan


The River 2004 is a large-scale lithograph measuring almost three metres in width. The paper is mounted on an aluminium panel which is hung at a small distance from the wall to give a floating effect. The landscape format work is composed of four vertical sections. These are seamlessly connected and show a predominantly black print with white highlights. The dynamic effect of the image is produced by the vibrant composition, which is suggestive of powerful brushstrokes.

In his work Kelly repeatedly referred to the motif of water and rivers, for instance in in his early paintings Light Reflection on Water 1950 (MoMA), Seine 1951 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), or East River 1959 (The Art Institute of Chicago). The year after he made The River, he produced a series of eight lithographs featuring major rivers from round the world, collectively known as The States of the River 2005 (Tate L04175–L04182). In 2005 Kelly completed a series of works dedicated to the motif of the river. The large scale of these river lithographs gives them equal status and presence to his paintings. They embody Kelly’s intense interest in the natural world and the boldly liberated style of his work.

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: 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.316.
Ellsworth Kelly Prints, exhibition text, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 19 January–28 April 2013, http://www.mmoca.org/exhibitions-collection/exhibits/ellsworth-kelly-prints, accessed 6 March 2017.

Monika Bayer-Wermuth
March 2017

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