The first piece of fine art that Madison Museum of Contemporary Art curator Rick Axsom bought for himself was an Ellsworth Kelly print.

“I was 20 when he was 40 in the 1960s, when I saw my first Kelly as an undergraduate,” Axsom said. “I’ve always loved the work. These deceptively simple shapes, at a certain distance, it might look as though he’s a one-note Johnny – ‘Oh yeah, it’s another shape that’s in a color.’

“But as you see the work evolving over the years, expanding his vocabulary of forms into new shapes … it’s immediately identifiable, (yet) it’s a body of work of great variety.”

Ellsworth Kelly Prints, which opens with a MMoCA Nights event on Friday, Jan. 18, traces the evolution of one of America’s most renowned printmakers from a 1948 self-portrait to a lithograph made just two years ago.

The prints are all part of Portland businessman Jordan D. Schnitzer’s collection, managed by his family foundation.

“I tend to like work that grabs you and makes you think and doesn’t let go,” said Schnitzer, speaking from his home in Oregon. “I like work you react to emotionally.”

Kelly’s work, he said, combines these two qualities.

“He is a master colorist,” Schnitzer said. “But he also has been able to refine and eliminate all distraction in this very minimalist – call it a ‘post-World War II pop art’ experience.”

Ellsworth Kelly was born in Newburgh, New York in 1923. He studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the School of the Museum of the Fine Arts in Boston. He served in the Army during World War II and spent six years working in Paris in the late 1940s and ‘50s, where he began to hone a style of geometric abstraction.

Kelly continues to work in a studio in upstate New York, about two and a half hours north of Manhattan.

A biography published by the Guggenheim Museum states that “in his work Kelly abstracts the forms in his paintings from observations of the real world, such as shadows cast by trees or the spaces between architectural elements.”

Much of Kelly’s artwork has a distinct look — bold, often large-scale shapes in a single color. They’re named that way too: “Red Yellow Blue” (1999) looks like the corner of three borders; “Green” (2001) takes the shape of an open book stood on one end. “Fans: Dark Gray Curve” (1988) traces the very top of a dark circle.

Axsom nicknamed a massive print called “Purple Red Gray Orange” (1988) “the 18-footer.” (It’s actually closer to 19 feet long.) The shapes in it could be described, only slightly inaccurately, as a trapezoid and three curved triangles. It’s often hard to pin down exactly how the shapes are made.

Ellsworth Kelly Prints has shown already in Portland and Los Angeles, but five new pieces from “The River Series” have been added for Madison because MMoCA has the space for them. The tour concludes in Detroit and Atlanta, respectively.

Some 111 works, including light lithographs of camellias, oak and grape leaves, are part of the show. Updating a similar book he wrote in 1987, Axsom has completed a new 870-page doorstopper called “The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly: A Catalogue Raisonné.” (A catalogue raisonné is a chronological listing of an artist’s work with critical essays. This one costs about $150.)

For Schnitzer, Kelly’s simplicity continues to fascinate him.

“It’s the tension between the subtleness and exactness … the expansiveness,” Schnitzer said. “His lines are perfect, the way he does those shapes, the curves. God. Just incredible.

“Ellsworth Kelly’s work ... it grabs me,” Schnitzer said. “I feel like I’m being sucked into his colors, his shapes. I feel like I’m a piece of steel and it’s a big magnet.”

As for Axsom, the hyperbolic curve and bold colors of “Red Blue” (1964) that caught his eye all those years go is now part of the MMoCA show.

“I’m always surprised,” Axsom said. “I love the work, I’m very committed to it personally – I’m so very fond of it, it has continuously intrigued me. I do think of (Ellsworth) as one of the great American artists of the 20th century.”

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