Ellsworth Kelly

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

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, “Self Portrait with Thorn”,  1947, Oil on Wood, 36 x 24 Inches, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California

Born in Newburgh, New York, in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. After serving in the military from 1943 to 1945, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and later enrolled in 1949 at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was in France where Kelly was introduced to Surrealism which resulted in his experimental geometric abstractions.

Ellsworth Kelly met the Abstractionist painter Jean Arp in 1950 and began making shaped wood collages and reliefs. He also began making paintings on various panels which could be rearranged in various compositions. Kelly’s travels through France in the early 1950s brought him in contact with abstract and cubist painters and sculptors, such as Alexander Calder, Francis Picabia and Constantin Brancusi. 

Kelly had his first solo show in 1951 at the Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre in Paris. Returning to the United States in 1954, he continued his exploration of painting, working with form and ground on flatly painted canvases. By the late 1950s, his work stressing shape and flat surfaces bridged the gap between the 1930s to 1940s geometric abstraction to the minimalism of the mid-1960s and 1970s. Kelly and his contemporary American artists developed a style of abstraction with shaped panels of bright colors and rigid forms. which later was termed “hard-edge painting” by art historian Jules Langsner.

In 1956, Ellsworth Kelly had his first solo show in the United States located at the Betty Parsons Gallery on 57th Street in New York City. In 1959 his work was included in the show “16 Americans” at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Kelly began working in 1974 on a series of metallic totemic sculptures, fashioned from steel and aluminum. He received many public commissions: a 1978 sculpture for the city of Barcelona, a mural for UNESCO in Paris, and a memorial sculpture for the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

“I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures … I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me.”- Ellsworth Kelly, 1996

Note: More information on Ellsworth Kelly, including images of his Color-Field paintings, can be found in the January 21, 2022, article in the Ultrawolves Archive.