A Topical Pick from the Archives: As the Met displays Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings, we revisit a show of lithographs of the same theme
AXA Gallery, until August 14, 2006
787 Seventh Ave at 51st Street, New York, 212 554 4818
Think of a typical Ellsworth Kelly, of the kind of work that makes him probably the best known living abstract artist, and what comes to mind is a sail-like shaped canvas, perhaps, or a freestanding aluminum form, in a strident, singular, retina-saturating color. Or, going back to his classic, hard-edge geometric abstractions of the 1950s and ‘60s, severe rectangles, again in no-nonsense chromatic solids. You could say he is an echt minimalist: a stylish, diffident advocate of the less is more aesthetic.
Repair to the AXA Gallery at the midtown AXA-Equitable Building, and you might have a change of heart: The hardnosed abstractionist has a soft underbelly in the form of forty years of exquisite nature studies. The exhibition is organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, who possess a definitive collection of all his plant lithographs from his “Suite of Plant Lithographs” (1964-66) up through half a dozen prints from 2004. In it, Mr. Kelly emerges as the Redouté of High Modernism, leaving no leaf unturned, covering cyclamens to camelias, ailanthus to algae, melons to magnolias, sunflowers to string beans.
There are seventy two prints in the show, and collectively they make for a powerful statement. There is actually remarkably little formal development over his career of as plant portraitist—or, to make the same point positively, he achieved formal maturity in this idiom from the outset. The prints are mostly big, at around two by three feet, with the depicted plant, leaf or fruit centered on the off-white page and rendered with tight economy strictly in outline.
Mr. Kelly’s engagement with flora dates back to the outset of his career. In 1949, while living in Paris, he drew seaweeds and algae from life, influenced in his choice of subject by his School of Paris mentors, Matisse and Arp, (he met the latter.) It is a drawback of the exhibition not to include some of these earlier drawings, even in the catalogue, to show the more varied notation of these detailed, yet still streamlined sketches. By the early 1950s, experimentation with increasingly schematic line, cutout, collage led Mr. Kelly towards a severe, reductive abstraction, first of grid systems, then of geometric forms. It was only in the mid-1960s, back in France, that he was ready to readmit representation as an aspect of his work in the form of printmaking.
When you get used to the fact that Mr. Kelly is drawing plants from life, then actually what emerges is a feeling of business as usual: in many ways, these drawings are of a piece with his geometric abstraction. The look is singular, uncompromising, confident, stylish, and personal. The tone is even, consistent, and not despite but because of its severity, sumptuously absorbing. The cream walls and blond frames, and the expanses of paper supporting marks of similar quality, induce a sense of serenity and order. With not a hint of green in sight, you are in the world’s coollest hothouse.
The fact that he sticks to outline and denies himself any form of modeling suggests a degree of abstraction even in observational drawing. His concern is with the essence of each plant he is working on, rather than the given living thing that engages his vision in a particular time and place. In this sense, the prints are true to their botanical forebears in their high-minded typology. The lack of color and the insistence on line gives a scientific gravitas to the enterprise—like black and white photography—even though, in fact, the sleekness denies information—a reminder that less is only more aesthetically.
Mr. Kelly treats his leaves and plants in isolation from their trees but as if still hanging to them—again, revealing an aeshetic sensibility that accords with a scientific approach. This is even the case with “Oranges,” from the 1964-66 suite of 28 images, the only lithograph that depicts fruits without surrounding foliage: Viewed in their fullness from below, only a couple of nipples ensure that they are read as oranges at all. Other fruits, like “Grapefruit,” “Tangerine,” and “Lemon” in the same portfolio, come with their stalk and a few leaves to ensure a credible sense of attachment. While the images are insistently flat, there is enough of a sense of roundness, depth and overlap in the forms to suggest credible volume.
Mr. Kelly’s line quality nestles, throughout this body of work, in a distinctive middle-ground that’s at once assured and tentative. There is a strong sense of slow, deliberate observation—these are not dashed off, bravura lines, nor stylised approximations. There is some variety of pressure in his lines, but an overall consistency and evenness. Sometimes there is tension or awkwardness in the curves and joins, but there is no evidence of pentimenti, or rubbing out or going over. It is as if he is cautious about what he puts down, but fearless in then standing by it.
In “Pear III” from the same portfolio, for instance, the fruit is rendered in a single, continuous line that fluctuates in a way that reads, very credibly, as the organic shape of the fruit. The leaves have stray lines that don’t quite meet, but that serves to suggest their quivering, flickering quality, just as the crude strength of lines depicting the branches conveys their delicacy and resilience.
These prints can suggest both abstraction and naturalism. The scale ensures that you engage with the images on the maker’s terms: Too big to turn comfortably by hand in a portfolio, you must grant them the dignity of a wall. Unlike botonical studies from Leonardo to Ruskin that notate on a reduced scale, these actually blow up their subject beyond life-size. This might seem to place them at the level of the decorative and the schematic, but it also means you sense the originating hand, arm, whole body of the artist. They are not “of” nature but “in” nature, in the sense of the distinction drawn by Jackson Pollock.
Mr. Kelly’s modus operandi, likewise, can come across as direct or indirect. Original sketches are made in situ in gardens or parks. These are then copied in the studio, on specially treated papers which are then transferred in the print shop to the lithographic plate so that the printed impression inverts back again to the original drawing orientation. Lithography is the printmaking medium truest to the instrinsic quality of the original line, the crumbliness of the crayon. At every level, in other words, Mr. Kelly places himself at a remove – from direct observation, from the give and take of printmaking experimentation – in order, ironically, to arrive at freshness and a sense of truth.
The Plant Lithographs are among several activities that underscore Mr. Kelly’s attachment to the observed world. He has made collages in which his characteristic color shapes are applied as torn fragments of paper to views of New York or reproductions of favorite works of art, a means by which to accentuate through obliteration. He draws self-portraits. And he photographs the man made environment—shadows on steps, a curved horizon line in a snowy field, a hangar doorway, a manhole—finding readymade Kelly-like shapes and forms as a vindication of his own formal vocabularly. These engagements with nature and observation inevitably force a rethink of the remoteness and artifice of his abstraction.
In contrast to the 1960s Minimalists whom he formally anticipated, he is really a much gentler spirit, an old fashioned abstractionist whose forms—however severe looking—are rooted in nature. His plant lithographs, like his postcard collages and photographs, reveal a shape sensualist who looks at the world. But just as surely, his naturalism has the sharp, cool cerebralness of a master of abstraction.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, June 8, 2006