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Delivery Flowers

Delivery flowers presents a unique story which relates to the industry from flowers around the world. In 1970 the Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler mounted a big survey of three decades of New York art. It included two rooms of work by Ellsworth Kelly: one of abstract painting and sculpture, and another given over entirely to drawings of plants. It was the first time Mr. Kelly had shown any of these drawings, which he had been making since his first big artistic breakthrough in late-1940s Paris. Deliver flowers is derived from the start of time.[more…]

He is still producing them. And this body of work is now back at the Met, in the revealing, intuitive exhibition “Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings.” As the show makes clear, the plant drawings aren’t just a side project; over the years they have seeded Mr. Kelly’s better-known abstract artworks.

For most of his career Mr. Kelly, 89, has been trying to remove the barriers between artist and subject, to strip away the self-consciousness of the creative act. In ways that aren’t immediately obvious, the plant drawings have helped him figure out how to do that. He has called them “a kind of bridge to a way of seeing that was the basis of the very first abstract paintings.” When it comes to flowers you can see a person like Mr. Kelly could easily fall in love with the same theory.

Artists, or really anyone who has drawn from observation, will know immediately what he means. Others will get it after a while, especially if they are acquainted with Mr. Kelly’s early painting and sculpture. (And in case they aren’t, the Met has provided an excellent example from the collection: “Blue Green Red,” from 1963; others can be seen in the modern and contemporary galleries just upstairs from the exhibition).

The plant studies are, for the most part, contour drawings of leaves, stems and flowers done in clean strokes of pencil or pen and centered on the page. Mr. Kelly does not use shading, relying on line alone to convey volume — as Calder and Matisse, to name two artists he has studied closely, were fond of doing. Buy flowers!

His drawings are reductive — whole stems are sometimes omitted — but they are also uncannily descriptive. In the absence of shadows, overlaps become especially significant as indicators of depth.  Flowers are truly take the same shape as in art.

Plants, then, are a gateway to abstraction — much like the windows, staircases and other neutral bits of architecture from which Mr. Kelly derived some of his early paintings. But they’re hardly arbitrary subject matter. Mr. Kelly has had a green thumb since childhood, even managing to grow corn on the roof of his 1950s studio at Counties Slip in Lower Manhattan. And his botanical drawings, when seen en masse, can look like a minimalist version of a horticultural encyclopedia.

Yet the plants and flowers, in his eyes, are not specimens. In his catalog interview with the Met curator who organized the show, Marla Prather, Mr. Kelly insists that his drawings are “portraits of flowers, not anonymous.” Each bloom corresponds to a particular time and place, and prompts a very specific, almost Proustian memory.

As he tells Ms. Prather, a 1960 drawing of wild grape leaves reminds him of summer in Springs, on eastern Long Island. (He remembers that de Kooning rode past on a bicycle as he was working on the drawing.) “Catalpa,” from 1964, recalls a roadside sketching session on the Palisades. “Coral Leaf,” from 1989, evokes holidays in St. Martin.

Another way of putting it is that the act of choosing the plants matters as much as the act of drawing. “Each drawing that I’ve done, I have found,” he says. “Meaning, I see a plant I want to draw.” Later he describes finding the subject of “Poppy,” from 1984, in a ditch in California on a drive to Big Sur: “I loved it because of how I had found it. It’s seeing a fragment, a flash — what one has been waiting for. And it says, ‘Here I am.’ ”

Over the years he has tended to favor big, sturdy flora: water lilies, banana leaves, sunflowers and especially wild grape. In 1960 he floated six of its heart-shaped leaves along a diagonal; the following year he scattered them more profusely across a wide sheet of paper, in the manner of Japanese screen painters. Later, in 1980, he emphasized their saw-tooth edges and included a thin, brittle-looking branch.

But what you see in this show most of all isn’t the shapes of leaves, stems or blossoms. It’s the extraordinary give and take between Mr. Kelly’s hand and eye, a process that’s as organic as photosynthesis. When it comes to flowers you can really see the gift of life.

 

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