Ellsworth Kelly and Henri Matisse Show Their True Colors

Ellsworth Kelly and Henri Matisse, two artists obsessed with color, are the subjects of simultaneous exhibitions at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

Few artists prompt the philistine reaction of “I could’ve painted that” more than Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015). At first glance his paintings are deceptively simple: large, monochromatic paintings, sometimes on unusually shaped canvases. But “Ellsworth Kelly. Shapes and Colors, 1949-2015,” on now at Fondation Louis Vuitton, makes the convincing rebuttal that looks can be deceiving, and even simple artistic gestures can be enormously effective.

The exhibition features more than 100 artworks by the American artist, including his bold and vivid paintings, delicate drawings of plant life and geometric architectural photographs, all produced between 1949-2015. It showcases Kelly’s sensitivity and intelligence, portraying him as an artist who broke away from conventional thinking to create an original and influential body of work.

Kelly arrived in Paris from Boston in 1948, where he developed his abstract language, inspired by fragments of the city’s architecture, its shadows and reflections. Returning to the United States in 1954, Kelly was out of step with the Abstract Expressionism of the time, but he stayed his course and, soon enough, the art world followed.

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Curve, 1990. Acrylic on canvas on wood 306 x 292 inches / 777 x 742 cm © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Exhibited in Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland in collaboration with the Ellsworth Kelly Studio. Photograph Courtesy of Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland © Ron Amstutz.

His paintings are impressive in scale, drawing viewers in with the frankness of their color. Some feature oddly arranged color panels, cut in peculiar geometries so that they overlap the canvas and spill onto the wall. For Kelly, the wall itself was an important element of his work. “I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long – to hang on the walls of houses as pictures,” he wrote in a 1950 letter to composer John Cage. “To hell with pictures – they should be the wall.”

There must be no better venue to view Kelly’s work, too. Fondation Louis Vuitton is the site of his final commission before his death in 2015: Color Panels (Red Yellow Blue Green Purple), 2014, a site-specific installation made up of 12 colored panels, hanging around the gallery’s Auditorium room on various walls, at varying heights. Kelly’s colorful notes add playful accents to Frank Gehry’s architecture.

Equally satisfying – and equally fixated on color – is “Matisse: The Red Studio,” an exhibition which Fondation Louis Vuitton is simultaneously hosting. Based around Henri Matisse’s 1911 masterpiece The Red Studio, depicting the artist’s atelier in a dominant shade of rust red, the exhibition displays this work alongside the paintings and sculptures depicted within it.

The show delves into the history and creation of what is considered one of modern art’s most influential works. Viewers learn how Matisse originally depicted this corner of his studio in a range of colors, before covering it in red, using negative lines to denote the contours of the space; how this radical approach was initially met with indifference, rejected even by Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, the Russian patron who commissioned it; how its acquisition by MoMA decades later led to its emergence from obscurity.

It’s pleasing to compare the artworks as they’re rendered in The Red Studio to their real-life counterparts. Le Luxe II (1907-08), in particular, takes on a new life. The painting shows three undressed women against a colorful landscape of earth, water, mountains and sky, but whereas they are white in the 1907 version, in The Red Studio their bodies are subject to Matisse’s red. Displayed alongside one another, they signal there’s much contained with these works to discover – an appealing invitation for even the wariest philistine.

“Ellsworth Kelly. Shapes and Colors, 1949-2015” and “Matisse: The Red Studio” are on display at Fondation Louis Vuitton until 9 September 2024.

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