Best known for his elegantly shaped planes of pure color, veteran minimal-abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly has long maintained what appears to be a relatively modest sideline in ink and graphite drawings of plants and flowers. Yet the Met’s beguiling selection of 80-odd drawings spanning six decades—the earliest from 1948, when the artist was holed up in Paris; the most recent from 2008 and upstate New York—reveals this quiet ongoing practice as foundational to the artist’s more celebrated nonrepresentational work. The forms here are immediately identifiable but stripped down to their fragrant essences. And while introducing the odd variation over the years, Kelly’s approach has remained basically consistent, reinforcing the essential timelessness of his project and making this a peerlessly likable summer bouquet.
Most of the drawings are characterized by clean lines, and describe a variety of simple blooms, stems and leaves, often in the form of individual “portraits.” Color puts in only an occasional appearance, and the focus is on shape rather than mass. But while Kelly displays a Matisse-like sensitivity to pattern, his images are not quite flat; slight overlappings and tiny differences in scale convey their subjects’ occupancy of real space. The artist makes judicious use of small changes in format, too, scattering the heart-shaped leaves of Wild Grape (1960), for example, across two sheets of paper, and extending Beanstalk (1999) toward the ceiling. “Plant Drawings” is, finally, an object lesson in perceiving the observable and the abstract as two peas in a pod.