Ellsworth Kelly


American (1923 – 2015)

Ellsworth Kelly was an influential figure in the post-war era of American Art.  Born in New York in 1923, he spent a great deal of time as a child studying birds and insects, which may have formed his unique way of seeing the world that is reflected in his art.  John James Audubon’s illustrations also had an early influence on him.

Kelly studied art and design at the Pratt Institute.  In 1943, he served in WWII in the “Ghost Army” whose task it was to redirect the enemy with inflatable tanks.  His travels throughout Europe while in the Army influenced his aesthetic style as an artist.  With the support of the G.I. Bill after the war, he continued his art studies at the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts School.  He then moved to Paris and enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  While in Paris, he befriended fellow American artist John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham.  Ellsworth Kelly also visited the studios of Alberto Magnelli, Francis Picabia, Alberto Giacometti who had a notable effect on him.  Kelly would reflect later in life the powerful influence his six year in France had on him.

Ellsworth Kelly is photographed in front of one of his works at Peter Carlson Enterprises in Sun Valley in 1996. (Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times)

Upon returning to American, the art world there had developed in a different direction from Kelly’s European style of painting.  In 1956, Ellsworth Kelly had his first New York exhibition at Betty Parsons’ gallery.  He had a studio space on Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan.  Other artists working in the area included Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and Robert Rauschenberg.  A few years later he was included in the landmark exhibition, 16 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art.

Ellsworth Kelly is known for his unique style of abstraction which combined solid shapes and forms with the brilliant colors of European artists.  His forms were references to things of everyday life on flatly painted canvases.  He was not afraid to experiment with materials.  Kelly often worked in several media.  Throughout his career he created paintings, drawings and collages and both free-standing and relief sculptures.  He was also one of the first to work on shaped canvases.

Ellsworth Kelly represented the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1966 and continued to exhibit throughout Europe.  In the 1970s, he moved out of New York City to upstate Spencertown where he could have more space and display his sculptures in the garden.

Retrospectives were held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982. His works on paper at the Fort Worth Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and a retrospective of his prints was held at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1987.  Today Ellsworth Kelly is considered a major contributor and influence to the history of American art.  He died in 2015.