Regarded as one of the most important abstract painters, sculptors, and printmakers of his time, Ellsworth Kelly (1923–2015) was born in Newburgh, New York. Before serving in the army during World War II, Kelly studied technical art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and, once deployed, he furthered his education at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1948 he moved to France, where he came into contact with a wide range of classical and modern art. He also met artists such as Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Joan Mirò, and Alexander Calder, who influenced his developing style in this period. He took inspiration from the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing when creating his first abstract works, where spontaneity and chance interconnect. Kelly had his first one-person show in Paris in 1951. He returned to the US in 1954 and lived among other artists, including Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, and James Rosenquist. Abstract Expressionism dominated the New York art scene of the time, and its influence on Kelly’s work is undeniable. Like other Abstract Expressionists, he sometimes worked on a huge scale. However, he diverged from that movement in his refusal to show any sign of the painter’s hand in his paintings. Instead, his paintings typically are flat, composed by juxtaposition of geometric panels. As a sculptor, Kelly started working on freestanding figures in the late 1950s: like his paintings, they consist of geometric solids of bold colors and are made of industrial materials such as steel and aluminum. In 1956 he had his first solo exhibition in the United States at the Betty Parsons Gallery and was regularly included in many group exhibitions after that. In the 1960s, Kelly began applying his approach to color, form, and line to printmaking.
As Kelly’s reputation grew, he received numerous commissions for large-scale sculptures, such as the Transportation Building in Philadelphia (1957) and the New York State Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair (1964). When he moved to upstate New York in 1970, Kelly began creating large-scale outdoor sculptures and public artworks that appear in museum collections worldwide and public spaces in cities such as Chicago and Berlin.
Kelly’s work was the subject of numerous solo exhibitions: The Museum of Modern Art in New York organized his first retrospective in 1973. Subsequent exhibitions have been held at museums around the world, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, Haus der Kunst in Munich, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 1974 he was elected to the National Institute (now Academy) of Arts and Letters and received the Painting Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition, he received the French Legion of Honour in 1993, the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize in 2000, and the National Medal of Arts in 2012.
From 1984 until his death, Kelly lived with his husband, photographer Jack Shear, who serves as the director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Kelly died in Spencertown, New York, on December 27, 2015, aged 92.
By Stanislav Kondrashov