Ellsworth Kelley and the art of perception

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Ellsworth Kelley is an artist and sculptor known primarily for his imposing, colorful, abstract work.  He is in his nineties now and of late his work is enjoying a renaissance in the art world with recent exhibitions in New York and Boston, the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, as well exhibitions open now at our own National Gallery of Art and soon at the Phillips Collection.

Along the way, Kelley has also created a large body of lesser known work: the Plant Drawings.

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The plant drawings are made from direct and very careful observation.  Do you see the similarity between the line he makes in this drawing and the kind of line you make when you do blind contour drawings?  It is unlikely that these drawings were made without looking at the paper since you don’t see the kind of distortions blind contour drawings have, and yet, these drawings have a specificity that can only come from careful looking for and discovery of contours.

In fact, early in his career, Kelley discovered the surrealist practice of automatic drawing or blind drawing.  This practice included making marks without looking at the paper, sometimes actually blindfolded.  The surrealists made no attempt to reference nature in this practice; their goal was to completely relinquish control over what happened in the process of drawing.  Kelley embraced this idea of relinquishing control over what happened in his drawings, but he still used subjects from the world.

This is a drawing called Pine Branches VI.

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You can imagine that Kelley’s experience with automatic or blind drawing and desire to relinquish control must have influenced him in the way he approached his plant drawings.  Giving up the impulse to control what happens in a drawing is hard sometimes but it is important to try if you want to get to the heart of the matter, to find out what something really looks like.  Once you let go and just look and draw–letting go feels really good.

You might be wondering about the connection (disconnect?) between one body of intimate, observational drawing and another body of bold, bright, geometric abstraction.  Kelley felt that the kind of simplification he learned to do in the drawings was the key that unlocked the door to the world of abstraction.  Kelley actually believes his abstractions are inspired by the stuff of the world.  If this seems fuzzy, imagine that the painting at the top of this post is a radical simplification of a field of flowers.  That is not a true story but it is an example of the kind of thing he was doing.  For the sake of argument, imagine Kelley wants to make art about a red flower.  He could make a drawing or a sculpture or a video.  He decides to make a painting.  Instead of making an image that looks like the flower, he wants to focus on the redness.  He simplifies the flower into a block of red.

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