Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1000 5th ave, and 82st Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings. Through Sep 3rd.

I know this reproduction sucks. It's not indicative of the work. I assure you it's my fault, not the artist. This is a really good show.

Just in case you're not familiar with Ellsworth Kelly, he's one of the founding members of the minimalist movement, and is considered one of the great non-representational artists alive today (although just barely. He's got to be about 90 years old). He's known for his monochromatic, shaped canvases combined in diptych and triptych form. His work is what you think of when you think of minimalism. His name is that tightly aligned with the movement. One of the things that makes this show interesting is that here is one of the most well known non-representaional artists of our day making representational images. What's also interesting is that these drawings were not made prior to his flat, non-representational work, nor after them. They were made contemporaneously with them. In fact, the show stretches from the late 1940's up to present day. So, what we're seeing is how Kelly sees figurative images non-figuratively.

I have to admit that one problem I have with minimalism is it's sterile, self important aesthetic. It's a movement that can be distant, and utopian in a "get over yourself" kind of a way. I've felt that way with some of Kelly's non-representational paintings in the past, but I don't feel that way about these drawings. Maybe it's the subject matter, or maybe it's the inexact tremor within the hand that creates these drawings, but there's a humility and sincerity to this work that's very attractive. It may also just be a characteristic inherent to the medium of drawing. I don't know.

There's a sketchiness in the work from the 1940's and 50's which gives way to clean contour drawings in the 60's and after. We first start seeing this with his "seaweed" drawings, which are particularly striking. Now, as anyone who's ever taken a life drawing class will tell you, there are no outlines in nature. So, once you start drawing contour's you're engaging in an abstract thought process. Kelly, a master of abstract thinking, uses this in a particularly sophisticated way. The drawings are usually made with a graphite pencil, but the lines feel like they've been made with a lazer, dividing the paper into clean cool forms. He creates a tense dialogue of positive and negative shapes existing on both sides of the outline. This is most impressively seen in his large "Beanstalk" drawing in the last gallery. Kelly occasionally uses color (watercolor), but that's usually just to create silhouettes.

Why leaves, and vines, and flowers? Well, what's most apparent in this work, and it's relationship to his more known non-representational paintings is his appreciation of symmetry in nature, and it's more subtle asymmetry. Obviously there's a great history of visual artists being drawn to the nondiscoursive delicacy and purposefulness in natures humbler forms, but minimalists? Aren't they supposed to be driven by grander, more epic subjects than a floppy banana plant? Not Kelly. What I find most revealing about this small show is how he translates natures humble, intimate abstractions into large scale non-representational paintings. He was, in this way, following in the tradition of the impressionists. I know, you're thinking "Ellsworth Kelly? Impressionism? Yeah, sure Matt". But trust me, I'm right on this. If you make the chronological transition from Monet, to Gauguin, to Vuillard, to Mattise, you can see how Kelly falls into that Modernist sensibility. Believe me, he has much more in common with Monet and Cezanne than with Mondrian or Malevich. Or don't believe me, see it your self. It's up till September. Or, don't see it. Kelly's not for everyone. No skin off my ass. I'm just trying to help here. You can stay home and watch NASCAR, and eat beef jerky for all I care.