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Lucidity, loveliness in Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Orange White’

Worcester Art Museum

WORCESTER — It’s fun to think of this Ellsworth Kelly painting, with its clean lines and sumptuous color, hanging beside something typically transfixing by Mark Rothko.

Rothko’s fuzzy-edged lozenges of color, built up in layers and overlaid with colored glazes in the manner of Titian, Rembrandt, or Turner, seem to emanate light from within. Supercharged spiritualism, stretched out on a scrim like the human soul itself, is the result.

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Kelly, an unblinking literalist with French classicism in his cool blue veins, was after something different. Clean edges, to begin with: He wanted none of Rothko’s soulful flicker and blur. “Edges happen,” he said, two years after painting “Orange White,” which is at the Worcester Art Museum, “because the forms get as quiet as they can be.”

And he liked edges. But how to “quiet down” forms?

Study them closely, to begin with. Get them just right. An aficionado of plant shapes, Kelly made an exquisite drawing of wild grape leaves — their outlines — the same year he painted “Orange White,” in 1961.

Then, too, make them big. Separate the shapes with clean lines and bright, matter-of-fact color. The cleaner and more settled the line, the more the brain’s inclination to separate figure and ground (a premise of Gestalt psychology) is inhibited. Thingness, as opposed to illusion, ensues.

In front of Kelly’s early paintings, it is usually difficult for the mind to know which edges should be assigned inwardly and which outwardly. Note the way here, however, the oval shapes touch one another and touch, too, the edges of the rectangular white canvas. These “touches” sensitize awareness. They also presage Kelly’s later move toward shaped, monochromatic canvases that make of the gallery’s white wall a more expansive ground.

Kelly, who was born in 1923 just north of New York and later used the GI bill to study at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, was not trying to play optical tricks. His art is as lucid as any ever created.

“My aim,” he said in 2007, “is to capture the light and energy of color. . . . Color plus form is the content. Color has its own meaning.”

What could be more straightforward? What lovelier?

There is, just so you know, another museum in New England where you can see Kelly hanging beside Rothko. At the Yale University Art Gallery, no less than two hypnotic, full-throttle Rothkos (the effect is of two divas belting out high notes in a nerve-jangling harmony) hang in the same room as Kelly’s “Charter” (1959), which was made before “Orange White.”

“Charter,” it must be admitted, comes off worse. The lesson? Lucidity and loveliness don’t stand a chance beside Sturm und Drang.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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