PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Museum of Art is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ellsworth Kelly’s birth with a new exhibition highlighting an extraordinary group of drawings that Jack Shear, the artist’s longtime partner and husband, has generously offered along with a related painting and sculpture as gifts to the museum. They come just as the museum has dedicated Gallery 275 as the newly endowed Jennifer Rice and Michael Forman Gallery, which has long showcased the early work of Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) and will be devoted to artist’s work and legacy.
The installation of works on paper features drawings from the radically innovative period, just after World War II, when the young Kelly lived in Paris as well as several more from later years demonstrating how he envisioned such works as the steel sculpture Curve 1 (1973), currently on view in the museum’s Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden. Ellsworth Kelly: Reflections on Water and Other Early Drawings also richly illuminates the group of paintings in Ellsworth Kelly: Paris: New York, 1949-1956 in the newly endowed gallery. Together, the twin adjacent installations explore the very foundations of an evolving vision that would distinguish Kelly as one of the most important artists of the Post-war period.
Commenting on the gallery’s endowment, Shear – who also serves as president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation – remarked: “Needless to say, I am thrilled. The PMA and Jennifer Rice and Michael Forman have shown passionate commitment and deeply felt enthusiasm for Ellsworth’s work and his continuing legacy at the museum. The PMA was such an important place for Ellsworth, going back to his years-long friendship with director Anne d’Harnoncourt (1943-2008). That it is happening in Ellsworth’s centennial year is truly special.”
The 18 works on paper in Ellsworth Kelly: Reflections on Water and Other Early Drawings — along with four drawings, three of which are already in the museum’s collection and one a promised gift of Trustee Katherine Sachs — reflect Kelly’s earliest efforts to challenge his own assumptions about what art could be beyond conventional representations of people, places and things. They demonstrate how he came to give shape to what he would call “already mades,” meaning objects or structures that he could find in his real-world surroundings and use for taking his art in new directions.
Many of the drawings in the gift are closely related to paintings in the Jennifer Rice and Michael Forman Gallery, presenting visitors with an opportunity to look deeply into Kelly’s process as they pass between the two galleries. Among the offered gifts are both the graphite drawing Study for Seaweed (1949), and painting Seaweed (1949). For the drawing, which is distinctive in its economy of line, Kelly outlined a piece of seaweed that he had pinned to the door of his cottage in the beach town of Belle-Ile-en-Mer. The larger painting, with its characteristic black-and-white color palette of this period, contains a painterly touch that lingered in Kelly’s work.
Among the drawings also are several that closely relate to Seine (1951) a painting normally displayed in the Jennifer Rice and Michael Forman Gallery (and currently on loan to the Glenstone Museum). In addition are several other works that, like the Seine pictures, variously treat the play of light on water with striking effects and incorporate elements of chance in their execution.
By uniting two important studies with the gift of the steel sculpture Curve 1 – Jack Shear has offered all three of these to the museum — the museum can now clearly show how Kelly transformed something as seemingly random as a crushed paper cup into a radical idea for sculpture, demonstrating as Kelly once put it how “everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added.”