Ellsworth Kelly (December 27, 2015) was an American sculptor and abstract painter celebrated for his chromatic experimentations.
Kelly who was the second child of the three children of Allan Howe Kelly and Florence Rose Elizabeth (Githens) Kelly, was born in Newburgh, New York, approximately 60 miles north of New York City. His father was an insurance company executive of Scotch-Irish and German descent. His mother was a former German school teacher. His family moved from Newburgh to Oradell, New Jersey, a town of about 7,500. His family lived near the Oradell Reservoir, where his paternal grandmother introduced him to ornithology when he was eight or nine years old.
There he developed his passion for form and color. John James Audubon had a particularly strong influence on Kelly”s work throughout his career. Author Eugene Goossen speculated that the two- and three-color paintings (such as Three Panels: Red Yellow Blue, I 1963) for which Kelly is so well known can be traced back to his bird watching and his study of the two and three colored birds he saw so often at an early age. Kelly has said that he was often alone as a child and became something of a “loner.” He had a slight stutter that persisted into his teenage years.
Kelly attended a public school, where art classes emphasized materials and sought to develop the “artistic imagination.” This curriculum was typical of the broader trend in education that had emerged from the progressive education theories promulgated by Columbia University”s Teachers College, where American modernist painter Arthur Wesley Dow had taught. Although his parents were reluctant to support Kelly”s artistic training, a schoolteacher encouraged him to go further. Since his parents would only pay for technical training, Kelly first studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, which he attended from 1941 until he was inducted into the Army on New Year”s Day 1943.
Upon entering U.S. military service in 1943, Kelly requested assignment to the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, which inducted many artists. He was inducted at Fort Dix, New Jersey and sent to Camp Hale, Colorado, where he trained with ski mountaineering troops. He had never skied before. Six to eight weeks later, he was transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland. During World War II, he served alongside other artists and designers in a deception unit known as The Ghost Army. Ghost soldiers used inflatable tanks, trucks and other subterfuge to deceive Axis forces about the direction and disposition of Allied forces. His exposure to military camouflage during the time he served became part of his basic art training. Kelly served in the unit from 1943 until the end of the European phase of the war.
Kelly used the G.I. Bill Veterans Service to study from 1946 to 1947 at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he took advantage of the museum”s collections, and then at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. While in Boston he exhibited in his first group show at the Boris Mirski Gallery and taught art classes at the Norfolk House Center in Roxbury.
While in Paris, Kelly established his aesthetic. He attended classes infrequently, but immersed himself in the rich artistic resources of the French capital. He had heard a lecture by Max Beckmann on the French artist Paul Cézanne in 1948 and moved to Paris that year. There he encountered fellow Americans John Cage and Merce Cunningham, experimenting in music and dance, respectively; the French surrealist artist Jean Arp; and the abstract sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, whose simplification of natural forms had a lasting effect on him.
He also coincided with Carmen Herrera, Haywood Bill Rivers, Zao Wou-Ki, Wols, Van Velde, Poliakoff, Maria Helena Viera da Silva and the Spaniards Palazuelo, Canogar and Sempere. The experience of visiting artists such as Alberto Magnelli, Francis Picabia, Alberto Giacometti and Georges Vantongerloo in his studios was transformative.
After being abroad for six years, Kelly”s French was still poor and he had sold only one painting. In 1953 he was evicted from his studio and returned to America the following year. After reading a review of an exhibition by Ad Reinhardt, an artist whose work he felt related to his work, he had become interested in it. Upon his return to New York, he found the art world “very difficult.” Although Kelly is now considered an essential innovator and contributor to the American art movement, it was difficult for many to find the connection between Kelly”s art and the dominant stylistic trends.
In May 1956, Kelly had his first exhibition in New York at Betty Parsons” gallery. Her art was considered more European than was popular in New York at the time. He exhibited again at her gallery in the fall of 1957. Three of his pieces, Atlantic, Bar and Painting in Three Panels, were selected and shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art”s exhibition, “Young America 1957″. His pieces were considered radically different from the other twenty-nine artists” works. The three-panel painting, for example, was particularly noteworthy; at the time, critics questioned him creating a work from three canvases. For example, Michael Plante has said that, in most cases, Kelly”s multi-panel pieces were cramped due to installation constraints, which reduced the interaction between the pieces and the architecture of the room.
Eventually, Kelly moved out of Coenties Slip, where she sometimes shared a studio with her artist friend Agnes Martin on the ninth floor of the large studio.
Kelly left New York City for Spencertown in 1970 and his partner, photographer Jack Shear, joined him there in 1984. From 2001 until his death, Kelly worked in a 20,000-square-foot studio in Spencertown reconfigured and expanded by architect Richard Gluckman. Kelly and Shear moved in 2005 to the residence they shared until the painter”s death, a wood-paneled colonial house built around 1815. Shear is the director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.
In 2014, Kelly organized an exhibition of Matisse drawings at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley, Mass. In 2015, he curated the exhibition “Monet.
Kelly died in Spencertown, New York on December 27, 2015, at the age of 92.
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While in Paris, Kelly continued to paint the figure, but in May 1949 he made his first abstract paintings. Observing how light scattered on the surface of water, he painted Seine (1950), made of randomly arranged black and white rectangles. In 1951 he began a series of eight collages entitled Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance I to VIII. He created them using numbered sheets of paper; each referring to a color, one of eighteen different shades that he would place on a 40-inch by 40-inch grid. In each of the eight collages he employed a different process.
Many of his paintings of the 1950s consist simply of a single, highly defined, abstract stain of a bright color on a neutral background. Kelly”s discovery in 1952 of Monet”s late work infused him with a new freedom of pictorial expression: he began to work in extremely large formats and explored the concepts of seriality and monochromatic paintings. As a painter he worked from then on in an exclusively abstract mode. In the late 1950s, his painting emphasized form and flat masses (often assuming non-rectilinear formats). His work from this period also provided a useful bridge from the avant-garde American geometric abstraction of the 1930s and early 1940s to the minimalism and reductive art of the mid-1960s and 1970s. Kelly”s relief painting, Blue Tablet (1962), for example, was included in the seminal 1963 exhibition, Toward a New Abstraction, at the Jewish Museum.
During the 1960s he began working with irregularly angled canvases and produced some works that are among the earliest of the irregular format, in which the canvas is stretched over a three-dimensional frame to create the desired shape. Yellow Piece (1966), the artist”s first shaped canvas, represents Kelly”s fundamental break with the rectangular support and his redefinition of the figure-format relationship.
In the 1970s, he added curved shapes to his repertoire. Green White (1968) marks the debut of the triangle in Kelly”s work, a form that is recurrent throughout his career; the painting is composed of two monochromatic canvases with distinct shapes, which are installed on top of each other: a large-scale inverted green trapezoid is placed vertically on top of a smaller white triangle, forming a new geometric composition.
After leaving New York City for Spencertown in 1970, he rented an old theater in nearby Chatham, which allowed him to work in a more spacious studio than the one he had previously occupied. After working there for a year, Kelly embarked on a series of 14 paintings that would become the Chatham Series. Each work takes the shape of an inverted L, and is made of two canvases joined together, each canvas a monochrome of a different color. The works vary in proportion and palette from one to the other and he paid careful attention to the size of each panel and the color selected to achieve balance and contrast between the two.
A larger series of twelve works that Kelly began in 1972 and was not completed until 1983, Gray was originally conceived as a statement against war and is devoid of color. In 1979 he used curves in two-color paintings made from separate panels.
In later paintings, Kelly distilled his palette and introduced new forms. In each work, he began with a rectangular canvas that he carefully painted with many layers of white paint; and a shaped canvas, mostly painted black, is placed on top.
Referring to his own work, Kelly said in a 1996 interview, “I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposition to the chaos of everyday life. This is an illusion, of course, but you keep trying to freeze the world as if you can make it last forever. In a sense, what I have tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art in an open and incomplete situation, to reach the ecstasy of seeing.”
Kelly commented, “I realized I didn”t want to compose photographs … I wanted to find them. I wanted to find them. I felt my vision was to pick things out in the world and present them. For me, the investigation of perception was of great interest. There it was. There was so much to see, and it all seemed fantastic to me.”
The best known works of his last period are his painted panels, which consist of the union of several canvases that on occasion have reached 64; each canvas is painted in a different and intense color, which creates a vibrant whole of careful balance.
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Lithographs and drawings
Kelly presented drawings of plants and flowers beginning in the late 1940s. Ailanthus (1948) is the first drawing of a plant he executed in Boston, Hyacinth (1949) was the first he made while in Paris. Beginning in 1949, while living in Paris (and influenced in this choice of subject matter by Henri Matisse and Jean Arp), he began to draw simple plant and seaweed forms. The plant studies are mostly contour drawings of leaves, stems and flowers made with clean pencil or pen strokes and centered on the page.
He undertook the production of etchings in the mid-1960s, when he produced his Suite of twenty-seven lithographs (1964-66) with Maeght Éditeur in Paris, at which time he created his first group of plant lithographs. It was then that he created his first group of plant lithographs. From 1970 onwards, he collaborated mainly with Gemini G.E.L.. His initial series of 28 transfer lithographs, entitled Suite of Plant Lithographs, marked the beginning of a corpus that would grow to 72 prints and countless foliage drawings.
In 1971, he completed four editions of engravings and an edition of the multiple Concorde reflected in Gemini G.E.L. His Purple
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Although Kelly is best known for his paintings, he also worked in sculpture throughout his career. In 1958, Kelly conceived one of his first wood sculptures, Concorde Relief I (1958), a modestly scaled elm wall relief that explores the visual play and balance between two overlapping rectangular forms. He made 30 wood sculptures throughout his career. Beginning in 1959, he created free-standing folded sculptures. The Rocker series began in 1959 after Kelly”s chance conversation with Agnes Martin, who lived below him on Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan. Playing with the paper lid of a take-out coffee cup, Kelly cut and folded a section of the round object, which he then placed on the table and rocked back and forth. Soon after, she built her first Pony sculpture. The title refers to a child”s toy horse with curved swinging supports.
In 1973, Kelly began making large-scale outdoor sculptures on a regular basis. Kelly abandoned painted surfaces, instead choosing unvarnished steel, aluminum, or bronze, often in totem-like configurations such as Curve XXIII (1981). While the totemic forms of his free-standing sculptures can measure up to 15 feet tall, his wall reliefs can span more than 14 feet wide. Kelly”s sculpture “is based on his adherence to absolute simplicity and clarity of form.”
In the 1980s, during this period of his time in Spencertown, the artist first devoted as much energy to his sculptures as to his paintings, and in the process ended up producing more than sixty percent of his 140 total sculptures.
Kelly created his pieces using a succession of ideas in various forms. He might have started with a drawing, enhanced the drawing to create a print, taken the print and created a stand-alone piece, which then became a sculpture. His sculptures are meant to be completely simple and can be seen quickly, often with just a glance. The viewer sees smooth, flat surfaces that are isolated from the space around them. This sense of simplicity and minimalism makes it difficult to tell the difference between foreground and background. Blue Disc was included in the seminal 1966 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, titled First Structures, along with other much younger artists who began working with minimal forms.
William Rubin noted that “Kelly”s development had been directed resolutely inward: it was neither a reaction to Abstract Expressionism nor the result of a dialogue with his contemporaries. Many of his paintings consist of a single (usually bright) color, with some canvases that are irregularly shaped, sometimes called “shaped canvases.” The quality of line seen in his paintings and in the shape of his shaped canvases is very subtle and implies perfection. This is demonstrated in his Block Island Study (1959).
Kelly”s experience in the military has been suggested as a source of the seriousness of his works. While in the military, Kelly was exposed to and influenced by the camouflage with which his specific battalion worked. This taught her much about the use of form and shadow, as well as the construction and deconstruction of the visible. It was fundamental to his early education as an artist. Ralph Coburn, a friend of Kelly”s from Boston, introduced him to the technique of automatic drawing during his visit to Paris. Kelly embraced this technique of making an image without looking at the sheet of paper. These techniques helped Kelly loosen his drawing style and broadened his acceptance of what he believed to be art. During his last year in Paris, Kelly was ill and also suffered from depression; Sims thought this influenced his predominant use of black and white during this period.
Kelly”s admiration for Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso is evident in his work. He trained himself to see things in various ways and work in different media because of their inspiration. Piet Mondrian influenced the non-objective forms he used in both his paintings and sculptures. Kelly was first influenced by the art and architecture of the Romanesque and Byzantine eras while studying in Paris. His introduction to Surrealism and Neo-Plasticism influenced his work and led him to try his hand at abstraction of geometric forms.
In 1957, the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased a painting, Atlantic, showing two white wave-shaped arches against solid black; it was the museum”s first purchase of Kelly”s work. Today, his work is in many public collections, including those of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, Albany, NY and the Tate Modern, London. In 1999, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced that it had purchased 22 works, paintings, reliefs and sculptures, by Ellsworth Kelly. They have been valued at over $20 million. In 2003, the Menil Collection received Kelly”s Tablet, 188 framed works on paper, including sketches, preparatory drawings and collages. Notable private collectors include, among others, Eli Broad and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Barcelona is home to some of Kelly”s sculptures. In 1987, a monolith of Kelly was installed on the access ramp to the Creueta del Coll Park, the base of the Corten steel piece, called Totem, is smaller than the upper part. The base of the Corten steel piece, called Totem, is smaller than the upper part. In the same year, in the Barcelona neighborhood of Sagrera, the General Moragues square next to the Bac de Roda bridge was fitted out with two pieces by Kelly: a monolith and a dihedral. The monolith, 15 m high and made of stainless steel, stands out for its vertical lines with a slight curve, while the cotten steel dihedral is fin-shaped.
Kelly also received numerous honorary degrees, including from Bard College (Harvard University, Cambridge) and Williams College (2005).
He was first offered a solo exhibition by art dealer Betty Parsons in 1956. In 1965, after nearly a decade with Parsons, he began exhibiting with Sidney Janis Gallery. In the 1970s and 1980s, his work was handled jointly by Leo Castelli and Blum Helman in New York. In 1992, he joined Matthew Marks Gallery, New York and Los Angeles, and Anthony d”Offay Gallery in London. The facade of Marks” Los Angeles gallery was inspired by Study for Black and White Panels, a collage he made while living in Paris in 1954, and a painting, Black Over White. From 1964 he produced prints and sculpture at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles and Tyler Graphics Ltd near New York City.
In 2014, the painting of Red Curve (1982) sold at auction for $4.5 million at Christie”s, New York. The auction record for a work by Ellsworth Kelly was set by the 13-part painting Spectrum VI (1969), which sold for $5.2 million at Sotheby”s, New York, on November 14, 2007.