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Ellsworth Kelly Casts His Cold Eye on Art Market, Peers

Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly in his studio, which is located with his offices on several manicured acres in the Hudson Valley, NY. Photographer: James Tarmy/Bloomberg

Ellsworth Kelly sits in his studio and tells me about the glistening white sculpture mounted outside.

“I don’t say that I’m taking things away. What I’m doing is not putting them in,” he says, leaning forward in his chair.

Kelly has spent the last six decades reducing shape, color and line to their purest forms.

In his current show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings,” some of the images are so austere that they’re drawn with a single, unbroken pencil line.

I visited him in his Hudson Valley studio -- full of artwork in various stages of completion -- which sits on several manicured acres dotted with his own sculptures.

We spoke at length as Kelly, 89, led me on a tour of the works and grounds.

Tarmy: Where does drawing fit in your creative process?

Kelly: All of my sculptures, all of my paintings, start with drawings. De Kooning or Pollock find the painting by doing it -- by making it. They do and they stop.

We used to say that the good painters always had someone behind them with a hammer to hit them at the right time: “That’s finished now!”

It’s a different kind of painting from what I do: I have to solve it first.

Pondering Plants

Tarmy: You’ve been drawing plants for over 60 years. Why plants?

Kelly: I chose plants because I could always find them. One of the first drawings I did in Paris -- I wasn’t thinking of doing drawings, but somehow or other, I kept drawing -- I bought a hyacinth flower with a lot of leaves, just to make me feel like spring.

So I did a lot of drawings of it, and it just started that way. Then I went out to Brittany for the summer, lived on a little island, and I drew seaweed. Wherever I went, I did drawings of plants.

Tarmy: Have they always sold?

Kelly: I sold them for about a thousand dollars in the ’70s, but now my gallerist, Matthew Marks, wants a lot for them.

Tarmy: How long does it take you to draw one?

Quick Study

Kelly: My drawings have to be quick. If they don’t happen in 20 minutes or a half hour, then they’re no good.

Matisse can’t do a line without it being a Matisse. I’m not that way. I do a lot of mediocre stuff, and if they’re not good, they go out.

Tarmy: Do you withhold much of your own work?

Kelly: I like to hold onto one from each group and live with it a while. You know, people think of artists doing things automatically to sell -- sometimes you just don’t want to give things up.

Tarmy: Do you collect other artworks?

Kelly: Drawings, mostly. My earliest drawing is a supposed Carracci. It wasn’t very expensive, I guess, because they don’t know if it’s a real Carracci. But it has all these seals on it of people who’ve owned it, and one of the great portrait painters of England, Reynolds, had owned it, so that’s the earliest.

But then I have more contemporary work, like de Kooning drawings, I have a Kirchner -- I like the Expressionists -- I have a small Picasso, and a small Matisse, and an Agnes Martin, who was a very good friend.

Tarmy: Do you like any contemporary artists?

Painting Vomit

Kelly: I only like artists older than myself. Time is so important. It’s always been the same way I guess.

Have you heard Picasso’s comments about Bonnard? He said something like, “He’s a great artist, but why does he have to paint vomit?”

The young artists always have to kill the older.

Tarmy: Do you follow the art market?

Kelly: Not really -- I feel the art world is chaotic. People like to make money with paintings, and they use them that way -- they corner the market.

That’s why Koons and people like that get such enormous prices.

Tarmy: Your art sells for millions, too.

Cold Eye

Kelly: You have to buck that market -- I had to work against it. When I came back from Paris, no one would look at my work because I’m not a gestural painter. I’m not an expressionist painter, though I love expressionism.

But I had to continue anyway. Because what the hell was I going to do? I had to do what I wanted to do because I really paint in order to please my eye, and my eye is a very cold eye, and it doesn’t really belong to me.

You ever feel that? That your eye is so dispassionate, it says “no” or “yes?”

Tarmy: Honestly? No.

Kelly: I think you use your mind more. If you put your mind to rest, just forget about the mind and look, everything becomes sort of abstract.

And I like to investigate that. I like to play with space, color and form. That pleases me.

“Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings” runs through Sept. 3 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710;

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include book and dining reviews.

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