Although I grew up a mere thirty-five miles outside of New York City, I never had the chance to visit anything other than the homes of various aunts and uncles in the outer boroughs and, once, the Bronx Zoo. That changed in my mid-teens when my high school art teacher began taking us to Manhattan to see the street art in Greenwich Village, to visit the contemporary galleries that then clustered on Madison Avenue, and to venture into the great museums. In 1967 there was a day when we first saw Sgt Peppers on sale, in a record store in Penn Station, and shortly thereafter one of Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons on a gallery wall downtown. Heady times, indeed.
I remember one particularly amazing Saturday a couple of years later. We went first to MoMA, where an exhibition of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures was mounted; the shock of seeing the enormous Floor Burger, which looked like the mutant offspring of an icepak and the ottoman in my parents’ living room, stays with me almost fifty years later. In the afternoon we headed uptown to the Guggenheim. The building itself was mind-blowing: spotting artworks already seen or as yet unencountered across the mad spiral of the main galleries was totally disorienting and at odds with my expectations of museums. And the art, a major showing of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, played equal havoc with what few preconceptions Floor Burger hadn’t already demolished. There was a large painting of the cover of the kind of marble composition book I was supposed to be taking notes in. Another painting of the back of a stretched canvas stymied me completely (an example at right). It was a while before I understood that Lichtenstein was telling his critics that if they didn’t think his comic-strip paintings were art, he’d show them what art really looked like. From behind.
Somewhere in those years, although I don’t remember exactly when, I grew to know the work of Ellsworth Kelly. He was one of those painters who seeped into my consciousness very slowly as I was learning what “hard-edge” and “color field” meant. I’m not sure I understood his work at the time. Or perhaps that’s too strong a way of putting it. I may not have known much about art, but I know what I like. His shimmering juxtapositions of primary colors in simple geometric shapes dazzled my eye, for sure. I liked the elegance of the compositions . The Walker Art Museum’s Red Green Blue (at the top of this post) was quintessential Kelly to me for many years. I loved the way that the brilliance of the color played against the simplicity of the form: it was almost gaudy and yet at the same time somehow restrained.
A few weeks back, following recent shows of Kelly’s work in New York at Matthew Marks, ARTNews reprinted an article from 1963 by the critic William Rubin that assessed that startling simplicity of Kelly’s early work. What was particularly striking was that all the illustrations that accompanied the reprint were of works that Kelly has made in the past three years. The consistency of Kelly’s vision over half a century is striking, almost as impressive as the works themselves remain. Equally striking was the headline that ARTNews gave to the new online piece: “Converting Painting in Sculpture.”
Over the years, Kelly has done just that, creating sculptures that derive from the forms and shapes of his paintings. But he is also a master of the shaped canvas, an idea that has intrigued me since that early exposure to Stella’s Irregular Polygons, among the first works I saw that built upon the relationship between the shape of the support and the image painted on it—an idea that in its own way informed Lichtenstein’s joking painting of the back of a canvas. But Kelly maintained an elegance, shown here in Diagonal with Curve III (from the Philadelphia Museum of Art) that I find absolutely unmatched in the history of contemporary painting. It is utterly simple and fascinatingly complex. It plays with the figure-ground relationship (it could easily be negative space in a wall, a black hole of irregular proportions); it is flat but it has volume; it casts a shadow that denies the possibility of negation; it is complete in itself and yet makes a statement about the wall that holds it up. It comes close to being nothing, but is replete with ideas far beyond what its simplicity should suggest.
I was long familiar with Kelly’s paintings (and somewhat less with his sculptures, which often resemble paintings folded in space) before I encountered his plant drawings for the first time in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. That encounter was a double shock: first, the sense of awe at seeing such elegance in a simple pencil drawing, and second, the discovery of who had drawn them. And yet as my eye roamed from one drawing to another I began to appreciate how much these simple works had in common with the paintings I had long admired.
For one thing, the drawings were all contour. There was no shading, no gradation except perhaps in the thickness of the line produced by barely discernible variations in the amount of pressure Kelly had caused to pencil to exert upon the paper. The lines were assured, strong, unfussy and unambiguous, and in this way, too, they resembled the basic elements of the paintings. In their simplicity, they were all about shape.
The strength of line and form that was captured in these unadorned compositions was deceptive in a way that the paintings were as well. The interplay of positive and negative space that the eye supplies is important in both. And the sense of depth that goes beyond the flatness of the surface, though it takes a long time to emerge, is there as well. In the drawing Orange (above and to the left) the bottom leaf projects slightly towards you; the top leaf recedes into the background of the picture plane. In this regard, it is a perfectly naturalistic portrait of a tiny orange plant. If you look more closely you can follow the emergence of each leaf in time as the plant grows; there is the tiniest indication of the next one to emerge from the top of the stem.
In Briar (above and right) there is a cluster of shapes formed in negative space at the center of the drawing. In Sweet Pea (below), each line is as fundamentally simple as it is in Orange, and yet an astonishing depth and complexity emerges, even in the simplest parts of the drawing. Look closely at the lower blossom on the stalk at the left. The voluptuous folds of the petals are captured in an elegant curve, and enhanced by short, simple strokes, slightly lighter that most of the outline, that trace their way inside the contours of the flower—the closest Kelly comes in these drawings to shading.
Although I am still drawn to Kelly’s magnificent paintings, still thrill to discover a massive sweep of steel outside a museum, the plant drawings, perhaps because I see them so infrequently on display in museums, have garnered the place of deepest affection for me in Kelly’s oeuvre. Kelly has said that drawing taught him to see; that drawing lies at the root of all his work—strange as that may seem when you consider how the draftsman’s or the painter’s marks seem to have been so thoroughly obliterated from his colored canvases and steel plates.
While I was searching the web for the images that I used in this post, I stumbled across another complete surprise: this Self Portrait with Thorn by Kelly, now held by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Painted in 1947, the year before he left for an extended stay in Paris, where he began the practice of drawing plants, the portrait shows a vigorous, muscular man in his mid-twenties. Notice the strength in his forearms, the bulging veins there, the workman’s rough clothing—he looks every inch the action painter in the mode of Jackson Pollack, not the composer-to-be of cool, cerebral compositions of color. And in his hands he holds an uprooted sprig of a thornbush. Look more closely and you will see that his left arm and hand are covered with scratches. It’s hard not to look upon this painting as a quasi-religious icon, some modern-day saint holding the attribute that gives us the key to his story. I have no idea what Kelly had in mind in setting this pose, but I’m happy to see this serendipitous prescience—that an engagement with plants would be a key to his success, a lifelong commitment to seeing, to drawing, and to beauty.