Distilled from Nature: Poetry and the Works of Ellsworth Kelly, An Evening of Poetry at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, March 1, 2013

by Gillian Nevers

Ellsworth Kelly and River II, 2002-5. Lithograph on Rives BFK 300-gram white paper mounted on two aluminum panels, 80 x 109 inches. Edition of 9. © Ellsworth Kelly and Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.

Is it possible to write poems based on abstract art? To look at geometric shapes saturated with color, or a series of monumental black lithographs filled with chance gestures and texture, or at spontaneous, lyrical line drawings and be inspired to put words to that experience of looking? Working in response to the exhibition Ellsworth Kelly Prints at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), seventeen Madison area members of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets (WFOP), joined by Madison’s Poets Laureate Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman and Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate Max Garland were invited to do just that. All rose to the challenge. The result was one of the most exciting evenings of collaboration between visual art and the written word to come from the long partnership between MMoCA and the WFOP, and, now, Verse Wisconsin.

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue, 1964. Screenprint on Mohawk Superfine Cover paper, 24 x 20 inches. Edition of 500. © Ellsworth Kelly and Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.

Participating poets drew inspiration from a particular print or series of prints, from events in Ellsworth Kelly’s life, and from his deep reverence for the natural world. Poets wrote about colors, birds, rivers, life on rivers; about love and how the rush of new love is like the rush of a river. They wrote about Kelly’s life as a young artist in Paris and about his experience in World War II when he was assigned to a unit making camouflage designs. Some poems were meditations on loss, others on history, family, or war. One poet wrote a sonnet, while others experimented with the use of form, language, and sound. One poet invited the audience to participate by calling out the word red after each word she spoke — a chorus of “red, red, red” resounded through the gallery.

Ellsworth Kelly, Four Panels, 1970-71. Screenprint on Special Arjormari paper, 36¾ x 62 inches. Edition of 50. © Ellsworth Kelly and Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.

Ellsworth Kelly distills shapes in nature to their absolute essence. And after all, what is a poem if not a distillation of a poet’s experience? Kelly’s masterful use of shape and color inspired a full range of compelling and finely wrought poetry. Any doubts that poems could be written in response to abstract art were put to rest in Distilled from Nature: Poetry and the Works of Ellsworth Kelly.

Gillian Nevers, a docent with MMoCA since 1993, no longer gives tours but stays involved by helping to organize poetry readings connected to exhibitions. Her poetry has appeared in various journals online and in print. One of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the membership chair of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.