Currently on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute is the exhibition Monet/Kelly, which presents the work of French Impressionist artist Claude Monet and American contemporary abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly. While the show is small and sparse, the work reveals the influence that one great artist can have on another. The purpose of the show is to portray Monet‘s and other impressionist artists’ influence on Kelly, whose style is completely different from that of the Impressionist movement.
Kelly spent six years living in France, from 1948-54. During his stay, he took a trip to Giverny, where Monet had worked during his final years. It was during this trip that he saw Monet’s beautiful garden and lily pond paintings scattered among the ruins, before these works became as renowned as they are today. Kelly was so mesmerized by Monet’s work that he began to delve even further into studying Monet’s paintings and processes, and explored many of the places where he worked. One of the many places Kelly traveled was Belle-Île, an island off the Atlantic coast where Monet painted a series of rock formations along the shoreline. Monet was particularly fascinated with the side of the island that faced the Atlantic coast and consequently received more intense shifting weather patterns and crashing waves. These rock formations appear in many of Kelly’s 18 sketches exhibited in the show, in which Kelly carefully traced the contours of the rocks and was fascinated with the positive and negative space the landscape provided. Kelly continued to visit France, making trips in 1965, 2000 and 2005, immersing himself further in the worlds of his favorite artists, from Monet to Gaugin.
The show balances the many late Monet pieces that inspired Kelly’s work alongside those by other artists. The Kelly works shown underscore his attraction to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and include sketches of different landscapes where much of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist influence is prevalent. Another example of Kelly’s desire to explore landscapes that fascinated Impressionist painters is his rendering of the famous Mont Sainte-Victoire, located in Provence, that captivated Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne.
The exhibition is also accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue which includes essays by Yve-Alain Bois and Sarah Lees that delve into this moment in Kelly’s career as well as the influence on Kelly’s work of the later paintings of Monet.
Other Kelly highlights include works such as “Tableu Vert,” which demonstrates a clear influence from Monet’s water lily cycle but is far more abstract than that of Monet’s, conveying his own personal artistic style. Kelly claims to have actually painted “Tableu Vert” directly after visiting Giverny and seeing Monet’s famous water lilies. “Tableu Vert” is seen as a painting of great significance in Kelly’s career because it is considered one of his first monochromes, which are essential to Kelly’s large body of work and unique artistic style.
Unfortunately, the show does not portray an extensive body of Kelly’s works, and the audience misses out on works that are representative of his typical style. Kelly is known for his large-scale pieces that emphasize the use of bright color.
Instead, the show has been carefully curated in order to present works that make a clear connection to that of Monet and the other Impressionist artists. The Impressionist influence is heavily emphasized throughout the show. Kelly himself was involved in the curation of the show and chose many of the pieces he wanted shown in order to demonstrate the influence that Monet had on his work. The viewer does not have to work hard to think about the connections being made but instead is easily confronted with the concepts of art history that are present throughout Kelly’s work.
The Clark’s current exhibit demonstrates how one artist’s true appreciation and admiration for another artist’s work led to a deep study that changed and influenced his work in a meaningful way.