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Ellsworth Kelly: Reflections on Water and Other Early Drawings

April 22–October 15, 2023

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ellsworth Kelly’s birth, this installation showcases an extraordinary loan of eighteen drawings. These works reveal how Kelly was inspired by nature and the world around him to conjure a singular form of abstract art. Regarded as one of most important painters, sculptors, and printmakers of the post-war period, Kelly’s career spanned seven decades of uninterrupted creativity.

The work presented here—the loans along with four other drawings in the museum’s collection—charts Kelly’s initial explorations into abstraction during an explosively innovative period while living in France from 1948 to 1954. Drawings from these years are products of his earliest efforts to circumvent his own assumptions about what art could be beyond traditional representation when he discovered in the world around him a shape or formation, which he called “already made.” As inspirations for his art, already mades came to him in surprising configurations: a seaweed plant affixed to a door, exposed metal rods from a bombed-out WWII bunker, and reflections off the river Seine in Paris.

The loans include a group of drawings related to the painting Seine (1951), acquired by the museum in 2008. Fascinated by reflections, Kelly explored the ephemeral effects of different light sources bouncing off still and wavering surfaces of water to produce a surprising repertoire of abstract motifs. A smaller group of three objects, the only examples in the show made after Kelly left Paris, unveils the process by which an abstract shape would reveal itself to him. In this case, a flattened green paper cup served as the model for Curve I (1973), a flat steel sculpture now installed in the museum’s Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is grateful to Jack Shear for his generous loans.

Main Building


The Philadelphia Museum of Art is grateful to Jack Shear for his generous loan of artworks in honor of the Ellsworth Kelly Centennial.


Louis Marchesano, Audrey and William H. Helfand Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

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