Though these drawings are little known and have seldom been exhibited, Kelly produced them in such prodigious numbers that the nearly 100 works in this exhibition represent, at most, a sixth of the total portraits he drew between 1941 and 2011.
Ellsworth Kelly: Portrait Drawings spans most of his 70-year career, showcasing his evolving and wide-ranging approach to both portraiture and drawing. The earliest drawing in the exhibition is his haunting Self-Portrait, Normandy, one of 30 self-portraits on view, made by candlelight in an army tent during World War II, while Hôtel Saint-Georges, Paris (Self-Portrait), made just four years later, hardly shows the artist at all. Here, Kelly depicted only a small section of his body reflected in the hotel mirror, choosing instead to focus on his studio materials and his hands in the act of art making.
Kelly’s drawings also evidence both his artistic influences and friendships. The impact of artists he encountered in Europe in the 1940s such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse are prominent in his drawings; his Self-Portrait from 1949 particularly reflects the influence of German Expressionist Max Beckmann. Portraits of fellow artists Robert Indiana and Jack Youngerman, actress Delphine Seyrig, and dancer Merce Cunningham depict the New York art world in the early 1950s from Kelly’s unique point of view.
While we know who many of his sitters are or were—friends, fellow artists, curators, critics, and collectors, as well as, of course, himself—many others, especially from Kelly’s early years, remain unknown. Fully figurative and deeply personal, these drawings reveal an unfamiliar aspect of Kelly’s practice and affirm his observation that “all of my work comes out of drawing.”
Featuring over 90 works generously lent by the Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, this exhibition is part of the yearlong Ellsworth Kelly Centennial, celebrating the artist’s rich and enduring legacy through exhibitions, publications, symposia, and new digital initiatives from major museums and institutions across the country.
Ellsworth Kelly: Portrait Drawings is curated by Kevin Salatino, chair and Anne Vogt Fuller and Marion Titus Searle Curator, Prints and Drawings, and Emily Ziemba, director, curatorial administration, Prints and Drawings.
An accompanying catalogue documents almost 100 figurative works on paper and includes critical essays which unpack the ways in which Kelly’s intimate drawings were fundamental to his artistic practice. Learn more.
Support for Ellsworth Kelly: Portrait Drawings is generously provided by an anonymous donor.