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Drawn from Nature: The Plant Lithographs of Ellsworth Kelly
June 12 - August 14, 2005
(above: Grape Leaves III, 1973-74,
lithograph, 47 1/4 x 31 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum. Gift of Earl and
his abstract style of pure color and form, Ellsworth Kelly (born 1932) has
occupied the center stage of modernism for more
than half a century. While working in Paris in the 1950s and after moving
back to New York City, Kelly created a new abstraction that combined pure
color and emphatic shape while remaining rooted in the natural world. Eschewing
art that depicted the real world or told stories, he wished instead to provide
viewers with a joyful and meditative body of work that celebrated the sensuous
character of perceptual experience -- his chance encounters with shapes
in nature that he found compelling. Projects such as his plant lithographs
lay bare the lyrical connections he has made between real and abstract forms.
(left: Tangerine (Mandarine), 1964-65, lithograph, 35 1/2
x 24 1/4 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of James Pingree and Mary
Kelly has consistently returned to nature as a subject throughout his extraordinary career. He began making prints in 1964, when he also created his first plant lithographs. To date Kelly has produced seventy-two plant lithographs that fall into five major series as well as fourteen individual works. The lithographs, which are linked to the ink and pencil plant drawings he has produced concurrently with them throughout his career, document a rich variety of plants, fruits, and flowers with exceptional simplicity and beauty. The five series organize this exhibition: Suite of Plant Lithographs (196466), Leaves (197374), Twelve Leaves (1978), Series of Plant and Flower Lithographs (198385), and Series of Oak Leaves (1992).
This exhibition was organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan. The prints are drawn entirely from the permanent collection of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Its presentation at the Hood Museum of Art is generously funded by the Ray Winfield Smith 1918 Fund.
Suite of Plant Lithographs
Already established as an important American painter and sculptor, Ellsworth Kelly began making prints in Paris in late 1964. He initiated two print portfolios for his Parisian dealers, Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, who were publishers of fine-art prints and co-owners of the Galerie Maeght. One project was a series of abstract color lithographs, the other a compilation of plant drawings. The Suite of Plant Lithographs was produced in two stages. The first twelve prints, editioned by Marcel Durassier at Imprimerie Maeght in a suburb northwest of Paris, were ready for release in early 1965; the remaining sixteen were printed later the same year and published in the spring of 1966. The noted master printer Durassier had earlier collaborated on lithographic projects with many school of Paris artists, including Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, and Henri Matisse.
When completed, the Suite of Plant Lithographs included
twenty-eight lithographic drawings of leaves, fruits, and flowers. For the
majority of the prints, Kelly gathered preliminary pencil studies in sketchbooks,
which he then redrew with a lithographic crayon and reworked in a larger
scale on transfer paper. For several of the lithographs, the artist drew
directly on transfer paper without an intermediate sketch. The pencil studies
and transfer drawings were made in Paris, Brittany, the Cévennes,
Provence, and New York. Kelly sketched the drawing for the first lithograph
of the series, Leaves (Feuilles), on a paper napkin in a Parisian
café on Christmas day in 1964. (right: Catalpa Leaf (Feuille),
1965-66, lithograph, 30 x 42 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum)
Leaves is the first of four botanical series of lithographic drawings that Ellsworth Kelly made with Gemini G.E.L., an important American print workshop located in southern California. Kelly's lithographic studies of flora are all contour drawings -- single-line renderings of subjects. The one exception found in Leaves is Grape Leaves III, which consists of detached silhouetted shapes in black. This particular presentation of plant form has precedents in the artist's ink drawings and clearly shows the intimate relationship between Kelly's plant drawings and his abstract paintings and sculptures. For the Grape Leaves sequence, which was drawn at his home studio in Spencertown, New York, Kelly began with pencil studies. He caught sight of his motif as it grew wild on fences in the surrounding rural neighborhood. In preparing the series at Gemini, he added Peach Branch, which was drawn directly on transfer paper without any preliminary sketch. Kelly later returned to the theme of the grape leaf vine for two additional lithographic drawings that were editioned in 2004.
Twelve Leaves begins with a spider plant, cropped so that only its umbrella-like spray of leaves is visible; this is followed by eleven variations on a single calla lily leaf, each print adopting a slightly different point of view, from above or below. Kelly drew the calla lily sequence from a bouquet that a friend brought into the Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, the print workshop where Kelly has made the majority of his prints. It is related to other series in the artist's ink and pencil plant drawings in which a single plant, such as a cornstalk or water lily, is explored in numerous permutations.
All of Kelly's plant lithographs were made using the transfer lithography process: a crayon drawing on decal paper is transferred to an aluminum plate or lithographic stone for proofing and editioning. Kelly executed the calla lily drawings directly on transfer paper without preliminary sketches. He worked very quickly, as he did in all of the plant drawings, taking no more than two to three minutes to complete each drawing with his crayon. He sketched while holding the calla lily stem in his hand, slowly rotating it to catch twelve different perspectives for the finished sequence. Each completed drawing was kept for processing and editioning; none, remarkably, was rejected or redrawn.
Series of Plant and Flower Lithographs
The seven lithographs of this series were derived from transfer-paper drawings that Kelly made of plants and flowers in the Gemini G.E.L. workshop studio. Although the philodendron and dracena appear here for the first time in the artist's drawings, Kelly had given the calla lily extensive treatment in the eleven lithographic variations in Twelve Leaves.
As he had done on several earlier occasions, Kelly worked directly on transfer paper; he did not base the lithographic drawings on a set of preliminary studies. For the two dracenas, he worked on the same transfer paper that he had used for all of the previous plant lithographs done at Gemini. In consultation with Gemini printers, Kelly found a different kind of transfer paper for the remaining lithographs; one that would give him a quality of drawing similar to the thicker crayoned line of the earlier Maeght-printed Suite of Plant Lithographs he created in Paris in the 1960s, which he had always liked. In contrast to the lighter, more delicate line of the dracena drawings, the calla lilies and the philodendrons emerge from a full, rich line.
Series of Oak Leaves
In other plant lithograph series, Kelly combined botanical species. Here, he focused on a single subject: oak leaves from his own trees on the grounds of his home and studio in Spencertown, New York. Variations in this series are created by the number of leaves on each twig, and by horizontal and vertical presentations. The lobed edges of the oak leaves appear to particularly fascinate Kelly, and he documented them with a lively and syncopated line of almost infinite variety. In playful conversations with each other, the multiple shapes of Kelly's oak leaves convey a strong sense of both movement and contained energy. Series of Oak Leaves is the fourth plant lithograph project that Kelly made in collaboration with Gemini G.E.L.
The paper or sheet on which all of the plant lithographs are printed is very important, its size and color crucial to the way Kelly placed the images. In this respect, each drawing is in an active relationship with the sheet. Kelly has used a variety of white Arches papers for the plant lithographs. The only exception is Oak VII, for which Kelly selected a tan handmade paper, simply because he liked it.
Individual Plant Lithographs
Since 1979, Kelly has produced fourteen plant lithographs that are not in series, although a number of them fall into pairs. To produce these individual works, Kelly collaborated with his main workshop, Gemini G.E.L; Maeght Editeur, the publisher of the first set of plant lithographs; and Tyler Graphics Ltd.
One of these individual works is unique in size: the diminutive Lotus of 1982. Basing the work upon an ink drawing, Kelly drew the transfer drawing for this print in his home studio. It was sent to Paris for proofing and inclusion in the final memorial issue of Derrière le miroir, a deluxe magazine devoted to current art that was founded in 1946 by Aimé Maeght. Lotus was included in this issue, which was dedicated to Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, along with fine-art lithographs by twenty-three other artists who were mostly affiliated with the school of Paris.
Kelly's preferred print medium has always been lithography, yet he does not draw directly on a stone or aluminum plate, which is the traditional lithographic method for fine-art prints. He uses transfer lithography, in which the act of drawing takes place on decal or transfer paper, a nonporous carrier paper top-coated with gum Arabic. The artist uses a grease crayon or pencil -- the same used to draw directly onto a stone or plate in traditional lithography -- because it is the grease content of the crayon that allows the drawing to be transferred. The completed transfer drawing is placed facedown on a lithographic stone or aluminum plate. The drawing is then passed through a printing press, where the pressure of the press transfers the crayon drawing to the stone or plate. Once this is accomplished, multiple prints can be made from the prepared stone or plate. Master craftsmanship is necessary for the process to be successful.
Working on paper rather than on a stone or plate has been attractive to Kelly for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it ties his crayon plant drawings to those he does in pencil and ink. He also feels that the process of direct lithography -- where the artist draws directly on a stone or plate, resulting in a final printed image that is the reverse of the original drawing -- compromises the integrity of the individual shapes and overall balance of the composition. He does not want to achieve a reversal of his drawing gesture but the actual gesture itself.
Label text from the exhibition