American Painter and Sculptor
Newburgh, New York
Spencertown, New York
Summary of Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly has been a widely influential force in the post-war art world. He first rose to critical acclaim in the 1950s with his bright, multi-paneled and largely monochromatic canvases. Maintaining a persistent focus on the dynamic relationships between shape, form and color, Kelly was one of the first artists to create irregularly shaped canvases. His subsequent layered reliefs, flat sculptures, and line drawings further challenged viewers' conceptions of space. While not adhering to any one artistic movement, Kelly vitally influenced the development of Minimalism, Hard-edge painting, Color Field, and Pop art.
- Kelly intends for viewers to experience his artwork with instinctive, physical responses to the work's structure, color, and surrounding space rather than with contextual or interpretive analysis. He encourages a kind of silent encounter, or bodily participation by the viewer with the artwork, chiefly by presenting bold and contrasting colors free of gestural brushstrokes or recognizable imagery, panels protruding gracefully from the wall, and irregular forms inhabiting space as confidently as the viewer before them.
- Real-life observations are the backbone of Kelly's abstraction works, which are replications of the shapes, shadows, and other visual sensations he experiences in the world around him. As did the early-20th-century Dadaists, Kelly delights in the spontaneous, the casual, and the ephemeral means of finding such readymade subjects.
- The subtle fluctuation between the meditative, decorative and industrial in much of Kelly's work can be traced in part to this design training in art school. In this sense, Kelly continues Henri Matisse's lyrical and decorative ideal of creating an art of visual serenity, even as the painted motif is now reduced to its simplest and sometimes most mysterious configuration. The special camouflage unit of which Kelly was a part during his service in World War II, and the principles of visual scrambling he undertook, has also contributed greatly to Kelly's intense visual motifs.
Biography of Ellsworth Kelly
Born in Newburgh, New York in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly was the second of three boys. He grew up in northern New Jersey, where he spent much of his time alone, often watching birds and insects. These observations of nature would later inform his unique way of creating and looking at art. After graduating from high school, he studied technical art and design at the Pratt Institute from 1941-1942. His parents, an insurance company executive and a teacher, were practical and supported his art career only if he pursued this technical training. In 1943, Kelly enlisted in the army and joined the camouflage unit called "the Ghost Army," which had among its members many artists and designers. The unit's task was to misdirect enemy soldiers with inflatable tanks. While in the army, Kelly served in France, England and Germany, including a brief stay in Paris. His visual experiences with camouflage and shadows, as well as his short time in Paris strongly impacted Kelly's aesthetic and future career path.
Important Art by Ellsworth Kelly
The large-scale Colors for a Large Wall is one of Kelly's early forays into multi-panel paintings, a fundamental motif throughout his career. Colors for a Large Wall helped introduce his deeply held view of paintings as objects; not only was this painting an object in itself, but it was comprised of many smaller objects (panels) supposedly having come together in chance collision. In this work, Kelly covered each of the 64 square canvases in a single color and fused them together based on a collage study he had arbitrarily arranged. Much of Kelly's subsequent work stemmed from this painting, as he continued to juxtapose panels of differing sizes, shapes, colors and materials in innumerable variations.
In Paris, artists such as John Cage and Hans Arp encouraged Kelly to experiment with the idea of chance in his artwork. For Cite, Kelly cut a black and white brushstroke drawing into twenty squares and randomly rearranged the pieces. He then turned this composition upside down and painted it onto twenty wood panels. After rearranging it once more, he connected the panels into the final painting. Although his artistic decisions ultimately dictate the final composition, Kelly's use of chance partially disconnects him from the resulting work. Such efforts to reduce the artist's emotions, influence, or individual marks have been important facets of Kelly's artwork, suggesting that all apparently "controlled" creativity is always partly a matter of an artist's making the most of chance collisions with unexpected and impersonal forces.
Kelly put great emphasis on the tensions between the 'figure' and the 'ground' in his paintings, aiming to establish dynamism within otherwise flat surfaces. In Red Blue Green, part of his crucial series exploring this motif, Kelly's sharply delineated, bold red and blue shapes both contrast and resonate with the solid green background, taking natural forms as inspiration. The relationship between the two balanced forms and the surrounding color anticipates the powerful depth that defined Kelly's later relief paintings. Therefore, these works serve an important bridge connecting his flat, multi-panel paintings to his sculptural, layered works.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Ellsworth Kelly
- Ellsworth KellyBy Christoph Grunenberg
- Ellsworth KellyBy John Coplans
- Ellsworth Kelly: 1954, Drawings on a BusOur Pick
- Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings
- Ellsworth Kelly: A RetrospectiveBy Ellsworth Kelly, Diane Waldman
- Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco
- Ellsworth Kelly: Red Green Blue--Paintings and Studies, 1958-1965Our Pick
- Ellsworth Kelly in Dallas (Dallas Museum of Art Publications)
- Classic SleeperOur PickSeptember 17, 1973 / Time / By Robert Hughes
- Dangerous CurvesNovember 4, 1996 / The New Yorker / By Simon Schama
- Ellsworth Kelly's Journey, From All AnglesMay 4, 2003 / The New York Times / By Jeffrey Kastner
- From Paris to New York, Ellsworth Kelly is the king of colorOur PickJune 11, 2008 / The Times of London / By Mark Rappolt
- Matthew Marks Gallery