ARCHIVE/Art Exhibitions

Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings

Written by Aksel Ritenis

It is September 1961. Ellsworth Kelly studies a castor bean, one growing in a container on his rooftop in lower Manhattan, perhaps. The personality of this particular plant attracts him. After examining it carefully, he renders one of its leaves in ink on paper. He draws quickly, conscious of both positive and negative space, which he values equally. The result is a single continuous line highlighting the distinctive shape of the leaf. When the work pleases him, the portrait is done—yes, Kelly considers his plant drawings portraits. If the results are unsatisfactory, he begins anew.

The now eighty-nine year old artist no longer recalls where on the page he began this contour drawing. Was it in the middle of one of the seven lobes of the leaf, or at the top, near the paper’s edge? Through the artwork, however, a complete image of the leaf is imprinted in his mind. Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this summer can see it, too. “Castor Bean,” on loan from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, is one of approximately eighty drawings on display in the Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings exhibition, which runs through September 3, 2012.

Those familiar with the bold geometric shapes and vivid shots of color in Kelly’s abstract art will be surprised by this largely monochromatic show of work created beginning in 1948. As contrast, museum curator Marla Prather has included the artist’s “Blue Green Red” (1963). Although this painting is abstract, according to Kelly, it can be considered a study of nature as well. He sees a brilliant landscape with red ground, and a green sky bisected by a massive blue cloud. If this perspective is unclear on first viewing, Kelly suggests looking again. His art is meant to be absorbed slowly, much as he scrutinizes his subjects over time.

Kelly studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1946 until 1948, and moved to Paris the following year. There he began sketching the flowers he bought to enliven his apartment. He continued to draw from nature as he developed his reputation in abstract art, but it wasn’t until 1969 that the drawings were shown for the first time, also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The works in the current exhibit, selected with the artist’s help, are framed simply in pale blond wood and hang on white walls. Although there are recurring themes, the art is as diverse as a banana leaf drawn plainly in graphite, a Siberian iris visualized in bold ink, and a single stalk of corn memorialized in Granny Smith apple green watercolor. Often the images appear not to be resting on anything. Unrooted, they float gently on paper like beach balls in waveless water. The exhibit is calming, and personal.

“The most pleasurable thing in the world for me,” Kelly once said, “is to see something, and then to translate how I see it.” He believes that his paintings and even sculptures begin with drawing, and that the drawings are memories of his perceptions at specific moments. This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to experience Kelly’s camera-eye.

Christine Ritenis

New York Arts Correspondent

Further information can be found at the museum website:

Quotations and images provided by


Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923)

“Banana Leaf”


Graphite on paper

30 1/8 x 22 1/2 in.

Private collection

© Ellsworth Kelly

Photograph Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923)



Watercolor on paper

28 1/2 x 22 1/2 in. (72.4 x 57.2 cm)


© Ellsworth Kelly

Photograph Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923)

“Siberian Iris”


Ink on paper

29 3/4 x 23 in. (75.6 x 58.4 cm)

Private collection, New York. Gift of the artist.

© Ellsworth Kelly

Photograph Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Aksel Ritenis

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