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.