Ellsworth Kelly 1923–2015
Watercolour 23 ¾ x 17 ¾ inches (60.5 x 45 cm)
Signed and dated b.r.
Given by the Artist to Robert Fraser in 1958; by descent.
While best known as a painter of scrupulously hard-edged abstractions, Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) saw drawing plants as playing a central role in his art. "The drawings from plant life seems to be the bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the [abstract] paintings in 1949," Kelly wrote in 1969. That way of seeing, he said, was "the basis for all my later work." The rigorous and exacting observation of the natural world that Kelly used to make his plant drawings - a practice he continued through his whole career - helped him to refine his distinctly direct brand of minimal abstraction. Indeed, the curve of the leaves in Avocado (1957) and later plant studies can be seen directly replicated in the forms of his abstract paintings, and offer a compelling link between natural observation and abstraction. It demonstrates Kelly's claim that his abstraction ultimately derived only from nature itself.
David Sylvester drew attention to this link when Kelly had his first solo exhibition in London at Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1962. Sylvester wrote of these rigorously abstract paintings of 1957-62 that, despite their clear, hard edges, 'the shapes seem to possess both the sympathetic, reassuring character of organic forms, with implications of softness and vulnerability.'
Ellsworth Kelly 'Self Portrait' 1949. Presented by the Artist to Robert Fraser
Kelly made his studies of plants directly from life, focusing on their direct visual impression - "nothing is changed or added" he said. Kelly used the natural forms of the plants to explore some of his painterly fixations, like the effects of volume, negative space and overlapping planes. Kelly’s renderings of plants - he likened them to portraits - are precisely observed studies of forms in nature. They are also steeped in memory and personal experience. “The most pleasurable thing in the world, for me,” the artist once said, “is to see something, and then to translate how I see it.” In 2012 the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a major exhibition of Kelly's botanical pictures, representing a body of work that spanned six decades.
The history of Avocado is particularly interesting. It belonged to Robert Fraser, sometimes known as 'Groovy Bob', the London art dealer who was an important figure in the London cultural scene in the 1960s and was close to members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Fraser and Mick Jagger were famously arrested together for cannabis use, a photograph of which was the basis of Richard Hamilton's iconic image Swingeing London (above). In the late 1950s Fraser worked in America and got to know Ellsworth Kelly. He acquired Avocado directly from the artist, along with a self portrait (above). These remained in his private collection throughout his life, and remained as testimony of a significant friendship and link between the worlds of American and British contemporary art.