At the entrance to the Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings exhibit, currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, hangs Blue Green Red—a well-known abstract painting by the artist. At first glance the arrangement of frank, geometric shapes and crisp colors appears incompatible with the soft, silhouetted drawings on display by the same artist. Gradually it becomes clear that these skillful plant sketches, some dating back to the beginning of Kelly’s career, have informed and complemented his more famous abstract works.
The exhibition showcases Kelly’s figurative drawings of plants, flowers, and leaves spanning six decades and several locations, from Paris to New York. The works—mostly contour drawings in graphite or ink, with a few exceptions in watercolor—range from cursory sketches to more methodical compositions. With his uncomplicated study of line and form, Kelly enables viewers to comprehend the wind fluttering by the leaves or the delicacy of lily buds close to bloom.
The pieces on display read as part of a continued practice of extracting shape and structure from the natural world. Henri Matisse similarly produced a portfolio of plant line drawings that served to inspire his paintings. Visitors emerging from the exhibition might start to see how abstract pieces like Blue Green Red fit into Kelly’s sustained engagement with natural forms.