WASHINGTON — AS you turn the corner into the Ellsworth Kelly show, a huge work of art called "Tiger" pounces at you, a frenzy of yellow, orange, pink, black, and white, perfectly and oddly aligned in varying rectangles.
This is one of the major works that Mr. Kelly, the painter-expatriate, composed in France during the years celebrated in "Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948-54." The exhibit here at the National Gallery includes his legendary "Tiger" and "White Curve VIII."
Kelly, who was present for the press opening, told the gathering he was happy to have "Tiger" in the exhibition because it was the last important picture that he did in Paris, in the autumn of 1953. The work is made up of five panels, each of them a separate color, joined together.
"I was doing the work in panels, which started together in Paris in 1949 with a painting called `Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris.' The panel works are what I think are probably my best contribution. At that time, no one was painting in panels," the artist says.
"When I got to Paris I was very much in love with Picasso, Leger, and the School of Paris. But I wanted to do something that I hadn't seen before. And then I stopped painting for a while and then began making sketches of things that I saw in museums, and in the visual world, the architecture motifs, things like that."
Kelly spent the summers of 1948 and '49 on Belle-Ile, a small French island. He credits the location with inspiring his decision to pursue abstraction.
"I did a painting of a milestone, and when you see these paintings in the exhibition ... you don't really see. When you see what it is, a milestone, it's a very minimal shape. But I was interested in shapes and colors, not so much from composing something that I would invent, but to do something that had to do with my own vision." Kelly chooses his words carefully, like perfect stones. "I didn't want to depict anything," he says.
When he came back to the United States, a woman asked him, "Did you ever meet Matisse?" He told her, "No, I went down to the south of France and tried to meet him, but I didn't. But I discovered color."
The audience at the press conference laughs. Kelly pauses. "I just said that because a lot of people have written [that] they discovered color there," he says. "But it did happen."
The painter was born in Newburgh, N.Y., and studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before enlisting in the Army. He was sent to France during World War II and participated in operations in Normandy and Brittany. After the war, he studied under the GI bill at the Boston Museum School, and eventually returned to Paris in 1949 to soak up the art there.
THIS exhibition, according to Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, the new director of the National Gallery, is the first devoted to the critical early period in Kelly's outstanding career. "He is one of the century's most important and influential abstract artists," Mr. Powell says.
"The Years in France" was organized by Jack Cowart, curator of 20th-century art at the gallery and deputy director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and by Alfred Pacquement, director of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume.
The exhibition catalog includes 9l color illustrations and essays by both men, as well as other scholars.
Mr. Cowart says Kelly's productive time in France laid the groundwork for the paintings that came later, and that understanding his work of that period is a key to judging his career. "If you don't know this first six-year period, where he came quickly - within one year of landing in France, in my view - to an understanding of what his art could be, then you're really missing a profound dimension."
In July 1954, because of illness, Kelly returned to the US. But, after seeing the work that was then permeating the New York art scene, he decided to remain.
Cowart says: "For the last four decades he wanted his art to take on an anonymous character. This anonymous art was something he had devised in France, though [his work] is all the more personal. He has developed a great sense of color, which is uniquely his, a sense of geometry, without being geometrical and formulistic. He has been able to present these forms ... in direct relationship to architecture."
The exhibition includes 143 works, among them 52 paintings and reliefs, 63 drawings and collages, and 28 photographs. As Mr. Powell says, these works trace the dramatic shift in Kelly's work "from figurative to the distinctive invention of multicolored panel paintings, the later his primary and lasting contribution" to abstract art. * `Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, l948-1954' continues through Jan. 24 at the National Gallery.