This exhibition of Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings is a companion exhibition to Ellsworth Kelly, Last Paintings, shown at the Matthew Marks space directly next door on West 22nd Street. The late Ellsworth Kelly’s oeuvre is unusual in that he pursued quite various themes and ways of artmaking in a range of media, including painting, drawing, prints, and photographs. Ellsworth Kelly had wanted to pursue art from a young age, and following a tour of service in the Army during World War II, he studied art in Boston and then Paris. He began making drawings of plants in the late 1940s in both of these cities, and his fascination with plants as subject continued throughout his career.
While similar formal themes can be found in Kelly’s paintings, drawings, and photographs, the autonomy of pursuit found in each of these media by Kelly is especially striking. Kelly’s abstract paintings are demanding in their minimalism, and sensuous in their bold use of color. As Linda Nochlin has noted, his painting can be described as “A strategy of depersonalization deployed in the creation of a recognizably unique style . . .” and, Nochlin goes on to describe a strenuous quest for resolution in Kelly’s work that, nonetheless, can be regarded as ephemeral and so “disconcerting”. Kelly’s sumptuous use of color in his abstract paintings does not reduce the challenge of his artmaking for the viewer, instead, his artistic choices and strategies, introduce a complexity of the unexpected.
Some, but not all of these aspects of Kelly’s abstract paintings, and so art, can be found in his lifelong corpus of plant drawings. Kelly became fascinated with drawing while an art student in Boston, and it’s said he wanted to bring some spring home with him to draw, that is, flora, while in Paris. Kelly has also reminisced about his fascination with bird watching while still a child, a precocious response to both nature and color in nature. Kelly’s plant drawings are executed in graphite, and sometimes in colored ink. Many of them were produced en plein air. Kelly has recalled his encounters with his plant sources as emotional moments in time, as markers of intense experience and memory.
Kelly’s engagement with nature, and so with figurative imagery in these drawings effectively disrupts the logic found in his abstract painting. The facture these drawings have is significantly dissociated from his paintings. It’s as though he were a portraitist of plants, of their complexity and actuality for their own sake. Yet, in Kelly’s concentration on the shapes and profiles of plants, and his ignoring of surface effects, he finds yet another way to bring out a kind of abstraction in these drawings, and, to again explore a “depersonalization” that yields a unique and truly Apollonian style that invariably will be associated with him. Some of this style appears derived from France, from Henri Matisse, and, it could also be called Shaker, and, it’s not so surprising that Kelly was a collector of Shaker crafts. Even so, it would be a mistake to suggest that Kelly has not achieved an especial and individual level of elegance and perfection in his corpus of plant drawings. His ability to render plant shapes in his art is truly breathtaking, and in this iteration of the modernist idiom, it’s hard to know how he could be surpassed.
So we have, for example, Oak, from 1969, a laconic splay of several oak leaves and their stem, and, the complexity of Peony, from 1982. In painterly mode, there’s Wild Grape, from 1960, in green ink on paper, and, Siberian Iris, in ink, 1989. And, for sheer reductive simplicity, there’s the centrally deployed stem and bloom of Tulip, from 1992.
We may well wonder how one artist could do so much in his artmaking that was so various and so singular. Yet, somehow, the spirit of art that Ellsworth Kelly himself knew and embodied manifested itself in this way, leaving a legacy that shall be admired and parsed over, over time, for sure.
Sources: Linda Nochlin, “Kelly: Making Abstraction Anew,” Art in America, March 1997; Ariella Budick, “Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York”, Financial Times, June 19, 2012
Donald Lindeman majored in Art History at Colgate University, BA, 1974, and earned his MA in Art History, Columbia University, New York, 1976. From1993 to 2007, he was indexer and then Assistant Editor at Art Index, H.W. Wilson Co (metadata since sold to EBSCO). His MA thesis was “The Art of Paul Kleein Transition: 1918-1925.”