The Soft Underbelly Of a Hard-Nosed Abstractionist

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The New York Sun

Think of a typical Ellsworth Kelly, and what comes to mind is a sailshaped canvas in a strident, singular, retina-saturating color. Or you might conjure up Mr. Kelly’s severe, hardedged geometric abstractions of the 1950s and ’60s, again in no-nonsense chromatic solids. Indeed, this best known of living abstract artists has long been a stylish, diffident advocate of the less-is-more aesthetic.

Repair to the AXA Gallery, and you might have a change of heart: The hard-nosed abstractionist has a soft underbelly. The exhibition is organized by the Grand Rapids Art Mu seum, which possesses the definitive collection of Mr. Kelly’s plant lithographs, from his “Suite of Plant Lithographs” (1964-66) up through a half-dozen prints from 2004. Mr. Kelly emerges as the Redoute of high modernism: He leaves no leaf unturned, covering cyclamens and camelias, ailanthus and algae, melons and magnolias, sunflowers and string beans.

The 72 prints in the show collectively make for a powerful statement. There has been little formal development over the course of Mr. Kelly’s career as a plant portraitist – or, to make the same point positively, he achieved formal maturity in this idiom from the outset. The prints are mostly big (around 2 feet by 3 feet), with the depicted plant, leaf, or fruit centered on the off-white page and rendered in outline, with tight economy.

Mr. Kelly’s engagement with flora dates from the outset of his career. In 1949, while living in Paris, he drew seaweed and algae from life, influenced in his choice of subject by his School of Paris mentors, Matisse and Arp. (One of the show’s drawbacks is that it does not include any of these earlier drawings.) By the early 1950s, Mr. Kelly moved toward severe, reductive abstraction, first portraying grid systems, then 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.

Once you get used to the fact that Mr. Kelly is drawing plants from life, what emerges is a feeling of business as usual, that 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 sumptuously absorbing. The cream walls and blond frames, and the expanses of paper supporting just a few deft marks of consistent quality, induce a sense of serenity and order. Seventy-two plants and no hint of green in sight: This is the world’s coolest hothouse.

The fact that Mr. Kelly 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 living thing that engages his vision in a particular time and place. The lack of color and the insistence on line gives a scientific gravitas to the enterprise, though sleekness comes at the expense of information – a reminder that less is not always more.

Mr. Kelly treats his leaves and plants in isolation from their trees, but they seem as if they were still hanging on them. This is the case with “Oranges,” from the 1964-66 suite of 28 images: Viewed in their fullness from below, only a couple of nipples ensure that they read as oranges at all. Other fruits, like “Grapefruit,” “Tangerine,” and “Lemon” in the same portfolio, come with their stalk and a few leaves that guarantee a sense of attachment. While the images are insistently flat, the roundness, depth, and overlap of the forms suggests 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. One gets a strong sense of slow, deliberate observation – these are not dashed off, bravura lines, nor are they stylized approximations. Sometimes the curves and joins can seem awkward, but there is no evidence of rubbing out or going over. It is as if he is cautious about what he puts down, but fearless in standing by it thereafter.

In “Pear III,” for instance, the fruit is rendered in a continuous, fluctuating line that reads, convincingly, 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. Unlike botanical 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 and 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 copied in the studio, on specially treated papers that are then transferred in the print shop to the lithographic plate so that the printed impression inverts back to the original drawing orientation. Lithography is the printmaking medium truest to the intrinsic 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.

Until August 14 (787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, 212-554-2015).

The New York Sun

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