Ellsworth Kelly’s travelling exhibition of 'Matisse Drawings' makes its midwestern stop at the UMMA

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 - 12:33pm

Today, American artist Ellsworth Kelly and Frenchman Henri Matisse are recognized as two of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Yet, their lifetimes overlapped for a mere 21 years; Matisse was nearing the end of his life as Kelly was starting out as an artist. For the amateur Kelly, Matisse’s works served as artistic inspiration as he developed his presence and style. During Kelly’s international travels following World War II, as he discovered artists that inspired him, it was Matisse’s emboldened use of line that informed his own unique style of draftsmanship.

“Matisse Drawings,” an exhibition Kelly curated in 2014 at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, is an opportunity to “see Matisse through the eyes of Kelly,” said Lehti Keelmann, Assistant Curator of Western Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Kelly chose 45 seldom-shown Matisse drawings, to each of which he felt personally connected, that represent the scope of Matisse’s career.

Kelly supplemented these works with nine of his own lithographic drawings that date from a trip to France in the 1960s when he studied Matisse’s expression of figure and nature through line. Kelly shared Matisse’s intention to translate — rather than copy — nature in his work. While Kelly crafted a crisp and controlled drawing style compared to Matisse’s expressive use of line, Kelly’s drawings reflect his aspiration to draw in the spirit of Matisse whom he believed “every mark on the page that he made had that sort of distinctive quality that spoke to the artist,” Keelmann said.

Keelmann took on the challenge of translating Kelly’s curatorial vision as managing curator of the UMMA’s showing of “Matisse Drawings,” on display until Feb. 18. The public is invited to view the exhibition during the UMMA’s business hours (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), as well as the opportunity to engage in deeper learning of Matisse and Kelly at “happenings” hosted in the spirit of the exhibition. The museum has exciting offerings this MLK weekend.

On Friday, Jan. 12 at 5:30 p.m., John Stomberg — who collaborated with Kelly to curate the original exhibition at Mount Holyoke — will speak on the process of working with Kelly and situate the creative evolution of each artist within their respective contextual circumstances. Additionally, on Sunday, Jan. 14, at 2:00 p.m., UMMA will offer a gallery talk and tour where attendees can look forward to an exercise in close looking. A docent’s guidance will provide a roadmap to navigating the exhibition that will facilitate intimate engagement with the works on display.

“Matisse Drawings” is a traveling exhibition, the UMMA hosting its mid-western destination. Detailed instructions specifying the construction and installation of the exhibition guided the UMMA’s curation of Kelly’s vision. The two artists’ works are shown in separate spaces conjoined by a vibrant blue alcove. In this way, the showing of Matisse’s and Kelly’s drawings can function as separate exhibitions.

This architecture, however, creates a passage between the two spaces that evinces the rapport between the two artists, and it offers a way to physically navigate the ways in which Matisse’s use of line informed Kelly’s development of his own drawing style. Furthermore, the vibrant blue passage encourages a consideration of line in correspondence to these artists’ use of color in their oeuvres.

Kelly specified the height at which works were hung and evenly spaced them throughout the exhibition. He also forwent the use of tombstones that would provide context of the Matisse works — although tombstones do accompany Kelly’s lithographic drawings. In this way, Kelly curated the space in order to encourage an immersive visual experience. This exhibition is about deep looking and engagement with the medium of drawing. Both Kelly and Matisse were recognized for their use of color in their art, but they were equally creative in their use of line, and line informed their use of color.

“(Kelly) was trying to showcase that, really, drawing was integral, if not foundational, for their artistic practice,” Keelmann said.

Everyone has a relationship to line. “We can all take a piece of paper out and doodle,” Keelmann pointed out. “Matisse Drawings” puts two great artists’ drawings on display, but it is also an ode to the artistic practice of drawing itself. This exhibition serves to consider the creative expression of drawing, to which anyone who has picked up a pencil can relate.