Ellsworth Kelly, “Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance VI”, 1951, Cut and Pasted Color Coated Paper and Pencil on Four Sheets of Black Paper, 94.6 x 94.6 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Born in Newburgh, New York in May of 1929, Ellsworth Kelly was an American painter, printmaker and a sculptor who was associated with Color Field painting, Minimalism, and the hard-edge painting style. Introduced to ornithology, the study of birds, at an early age by his grandmother, he developed a passion for form and color which he carried into his future works. Encouraged by his early teachers to pursue an artistic career, Kelly studied, starting in 1941, at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, which he attended until his induction into the Army in 1943.
Entering into military service, Kelly requested to be assigned to the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion which took many inducted artists. During World War II, he served with others in its deception unit, known as the Ghost Army, which used inflatable tanks and other elements of subterfuge, including the art of camouflage, to mislead the enemy forces. Kelly served with the unit until the end of the war’s European phase. From 1946 to 1947, he used the G.I. Bill to study at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
During his time in Boston, Ellsworth Kelly exhibited in his first group show at the Boris Mirski Gallery and taught art classes at the Norfolk House Center in Roxbury. In 1948, he moved to Paris to study at its School of Fine Arts. Kelly immersed himself in Paris’s artistic resources and met such American artists as composer John Cage and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, French surrealist artist Jean Arp and Romanian abstract sculptor Constantin Brâncuși , whose simplification of natural forms had a lasting influence on him.
In 1954 Kelly returned to the United States and settled in New York City. In May of 1956, and again in the fall of 1957, he had exhibitions at Betty Parson’s gallery. Three of Kelly’s works, “Atlantic”, “Bar” and “Painting in Three Panels”, were selected for the Whitney Museum of American Arts’s exhibition entitled “Young America 1957”; all three works were considered radically different from the other entries in the show.
Ellsworth Kelly left New York City in 1970 and settled in Spencertown, a hamlet about one hundred-thirty miles north of the city. His husband, the photographer Jack Shear, joined him in 1984. Kelly worked in a twenty-thousand square foot extended studio in Spencertown until 2005. At that time, the couple moved to a small 1815 colonial house which they shared until Kelly’s death in December of 2015, at the age of ninety-two.
Ellsworth Kelly made his first abstract paintings in 1949. His 1950 “Seine”, consisting of black and white rectangles arranged by chance, was inspired by the dispersal of light on the surface of water. This was followed by a series of eight collages in 1951 entitled “Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance I to VIII”, produced by using number slips of different colors arranged on a large square grid. Kelly’s work gradually increased in size and became more abstract with a focus on shape and masses of color on the canvas plane.
Starting in the 1960s, Kelly started painting on angular and, later, shaped canvases; the first shaped work was his 1966 “Yellow Piece”. His 1968 “Green White” marks the first appearance of the triangle in his work, a shape which reoccurs throughout his career. In 1971, Kelly produced a series of fourteen paintings entitled “Chatham Series”, each painting consisting of two panels painted in balancing monochrome colors and joined together. In 1979, he used curves in two-color paintings made of separate panels. In his later works Kelly distilled his palette and worked on rectangular panels of many coats of white, on top of which is placed a shaped black canvas.
An artist of many mediums and styles, Ellsworth Kelly produced many drawings of plants from the late 1940s onward. In the 1960s, he took up printmaking and, from 1964 to 1966, produced his “Suite of Twenty-Seven Lithographs”, during his stay in Paris. His 1988 “Purple/Red/Gray/Orange” at eighteen feet in length may be the largest single-sheet lithograph ever made. From 1959 onwards, Kelly made freestanding folded sculptures; in 1973 for his large-scale outdoor sculptures, he switched mediums to steel, aluminum, or bronze. Kelly produced a total of one hundred and forty sculptures in his lifetime.
Top Insert Image: Onni Saari, “Ellsworth Kelly in his Broad Steet Studio, New York”, 1956, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Ellsworth Kelly, “Colors for a Large Wall”, 1951, Oil on Sixty Four Canvas Panels, 240 x 240 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Third Insert Image: Ellsworth Kelly, “Spectrum IV”, Oil on Thirteen Canvas Panels, 297.2 x 297.2 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Bottom Insert Image: Ellsworth Kelly, “Meschers”, 1951, Oil on Camvas, 149.9 x 149.9 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York