Plants, Flowers and Fruits: Ellsworth Kelly Lithographs

Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923), best known for his large-scale, color field painting, first experimented with reductive geometry in paint and wood in 1949. These works eventually gave way to monumental canvases of pure, concentrated color that heralded a new era of minimalism. In an abrupt departure from the critically popular gestural work of Abstract Expressionism, Kelly pursued a highly finished art, one in which his refined canvases suggested not the hand of the artist, but rather the extracted forms of his observations of the physical world.

Indeed, Kelly's first forays into abstraction stemmed from a deeply considered examination of the natural and built environments in which he lived. Architectural features such as doorways and windowpanes were simplified by the artist into a minimal number of lines, squares and arches. Likewise, leaves, stems and petals provided inspiration, and alongside his early trials in abstraction, Kelly continued to make drawings from nature. While growing up in New Jersey, he focused on the flora that proliferated not far from the metropolis in which his abstract works would one day change the course of art. The endless array of curls, curves and angles he found in foliate forms spurred this lifelong interest.

Kelly's earliest drawings on the subject date to his high school years. He later recalled of them, "The drawings from plant life seem to be the bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the paintings in 1949 that are the basis for all of my later work." Kelly's initial series of 28 transfer lithographs, entitled "Suite of Plant Lithographs" (1964-66), marked the beginning of a corpus that would grow to 72 prints and countless drawings of foliage. Paradoxically, these works also fueled his most minimal artistic experiments. At the time that he executed this first series of plant lithographs, for example, he was working on his first series of abstract prints, employing the vibrant colors and geometric shapes that would eventually define his career.

A selection of Kelly's lithographs are on view in Plants, Flowers and Fruits. Simple black lines delineate pears, cyclamen and magnolia petals, among other subjects, from this, his first "Suite of Plant Lithographs." All of the specimens have been enlarged to allow for close scrutiny, but the artist has rendered them without any distracting details. Part botanical renderings, part abstract drawings, Kelly's simplified, confident depictions of plants reflect how deeply the artist's minimalism is rooted in the natural world.

 

Ellsworth Kelly (American, 1923–2015), Fig Branch, 1965–66