Green fingers

In the 1920s Ellsworth Kelly, then three or four years old, came down the stairs of his family’s modest Pittsburgh house one morning and found a block of butter the milkman had delivered. The tot suddenly felt compelled to mash the butter like clay. “I started to step on it,” recalls Kelly, a mischievous glint in his watery blue eyes. He squashed it underfoot until the creamy yellow mess was ground into the rug. “I wasn’t satisfied until it was all flat. I realise now that I do not like bulk.”

Kelly, who turned 89 on May 31, is most famous for his abstract paintings – large canvases, often angular, curved or multi-panel, saturated in solid swaths of brilliant colour – and his tall, thin “Totem” sculptures, both of which celebrate the two-dimensional shape as object. But even his figurative works on paper – portraits of people and plants that may surprise the public but are coveted by collectors – have a flatness about them. Now his delicate, lyrical drawings outlining leaves, branches, flowers and fruit, spanning more than 60 years, are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rendered primarily in pencil or ink, but occasionally awash in watercolour, the botanicals take drawing to its most simplified form while remaining in the realm of representation. Some are executed in just a minute or two, and even the most complex, Kelly says, take less than half an hour. The works shun shadow and depth, highlighting the shape, or contour, of the vegetation and leaving the interior spaces blank.

“My drawings are kind of notations,” Kelly says in his studio in Spencertown, New York. “I only want the line.”

Moreover, the goal, a self-imposed challenge, is to accomplish the feat in as few lines as possible and still “get the essence of it”, he says. Kelly picks up the newly published monograph Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings and with his finger swiftly traces a 1968 depiction of a water lily on the back cover – just three graceful strokes for the skinny, curved stem and the broad, notched leaf.

“I lived in Bridgehampton that summer, next to a potato field, near a pond,” where he came across the water lily, he says. The drawing flowed so easily that he felt compelled to try variations; over the next week or so he made 14 more of the same leaf.

Many other drawings in the book and the exhibition were created here in upstate New York, where Kelly has lived and worked since 1970. He used to walk for a couple of miles each morning through the hilly, wooded area, lush with wild grape leaves, with his pad and pencil in hand. Though he would occasionally bring a branch or other specimen into his studio, his preference was to create en plein air.

Flipping through the pages, Kelly pauses. “Each drawing has a story,” he says. There’s the long palm leaf from a trip to Jamaica, a briar whose thorns stuck him and catalpa leaves from a tree someone sent him and he planted in the yard. For a 1960 drawing of a hibiscus, its petals gently wilting down upon each other, he recounts, “I was driving a car out in East Hampton on a dirt road and saw some white in a field. I stopped the car and went out to look. It’s like finding a good model.”

He is choosy about his botanicals, preferring simple leaves with defined shapes, as in his elegant sketches of ginkgos and milkweed, and avoiding orchids, which he calls too baroque. He is also self-critical. “When you compare what you’re doing to nature,” he says, “it’s never as good.”

Kelly’s passion for drawing was nurtured at the Boston Museum School, following his army service in the second world war. There he honed his skills in daily sittings with nude models, during which his teacher instructed that one must learn to see before one can learn to draw. Hooked, he sought a subject he could study continually and cheaply when he moved to Paris in 1948. He hit upon plants. “Drawing was like a necessity,” Kelly says. “I felt so fed up with easel painting. Picasso, Matisse, Miró had done it.”

In France, his drawings quickly evolved from detailed, pulled-back views of trees to reductive close-ups of apples, seaweed and teasel, sometimes a solitary blossom or leaf. Soon his paintings were moving in the same direction, focusing on geometric shapes and using a limited palette. “Drawing is the basis for all my work,” he says. “I figured out a lot from my drawing.”

Back in New York in the 1950s, Kelly planted corn on the roof of his studio in Coenties Slip and continued to make drawing a daily practice. But until 1969, when curator Henry Geldzahler selected 30 of them for the historic New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 show at the Met, Kelly kept the plant drawings private. In part, he says, he didn’t think viewers would accept figurative works from an abstract artist, particularly one already difficult to label. Challenging the abstract expressionists and coming 10 years before the minimalists meant, he says, that “I’ve always been something else”.

There was little market demand for American drawings at the time, and Kelly considered his too valuable and personal to discount. “I felt like, I’m not going to sell them for two cents,” he says. “My drawings are such a part of me.” Even today, he exhibits and sells only those he considers top-grade. He has been known to change his mind, however. His friend Jack Shear rescued a 1983 drooping sunflower from the discard heap, and it’s now in the Met show.

Pushing 90 and on oxygen, Kelly has inevitably slowed somewhat. He doesn’t draw every day any more. “You get afraid of the white piece of paper after a while,” he says.

Still, Kelly’s drive does not seem to be abating. In his studio sits a model for a 2013 painting exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. He recently travelled to Philadelphia for the unveiling of a “Totem” commissioned for the Barnes Foundation’s new home, and he has undertaken a major new sculpture for Dartmouth College. For what is surely his quirkiest commission to date, he even designed the tattoo adorning curator Carter Foster’s right forearm. With summer approaching, Kelly’s gearing up for vegetation’s prime time, and he’s also itching to paint again, but his new set of stretchers isn’t quite ready.

“Somebody asked me about heaven, and I said, ‘Heaven? Who needs it?’” Kelly says with a slight chuckle. “I want 20 more years on the earth. That’s my heaven.”

‘Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until September 3,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.