Ellsworth Kelly (May 31, 1923 – December 27, 2015) was an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker associated with hard-edge painting, Color Field painting and minimalism. His works demonstrate unassuming techniques emphasizing line, color and form, similar to the work of John McLaughlin and Kenneth Noland. Kelly often employed bright colors. He lived and worked in Spencertown, New York.
Kelly was born the second son of three to Allan Howe Kelly and Florence Rose Elizabeth (Githens) Kelly in Newburgh, New York, approximately 60 miles north of New York City. His father was an insurance company executive of Scots-Irish and German descent. His mother was a former school teacher of Welsh and Pennsylvania German stock. His family moved from Newburgh to Oradell, New Jersey, a town of nearly 7,500 people. 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 to his bird watching and his study of the two- and three-color birds he saw so frequently at an early age. Kelly has said he was often alone as a young boy and became somewhat of a “loner”. He had a slight stutter that persisted into his teenage years.
Kelly attended public school, where art classes stressed materials and sought to develop the “artistic imagination”. This curriculum was typical of the broader trend in schooling that had emerged from the Progressive education theories promulgated by the Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, at which the American modernist painter Arthur Wesley Dow had taught. Although his parents were reluctant to support Kelly’s art training, a school teacher encouraged him to go further. As his parents would pay only for technical training, Kelly studied first 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 to be assigned to the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion, which took many artists. He was inducted at Fort Dix, New Jersey and sent to Camp Hale, Colorado, where he trained with mountain ski troops. He had never skied before. Six to eight weeks later, he was transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland. During World War II, he served with other artists and designers in a deception unit known as The Ghost Army. The Ghost soldiers used inflatable tanks, trucks, and other elements of subterfuge to mislead the 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 with the unit from 1943 until the end of the European phase of the war.
Kelly used the G.I. Bill to study from 1946-47 at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he took advantage of the museum’s collections, and then at the École 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. The experience of visiting artists such as Alberto Magnelli, Francis Picabia, Alberto Giacometti and Georges Vantongerloo in their 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 he returned to America the following year. He had become interested after reading a review of an Ad Reinhardt exhibit, an artist whose work he felt his work related to. Upon his return to New York, he found the art world “very tough.” Although Kelly is now considered an essential innovator and contributor to the American art movement, it was hard for many to find the connection between Kelly’s art and the dominant stylistic trends. In May 1956 Kelly had his first New York City exhibition at Betty Parsons’ gallery. His art was considered more European than was popular in New York at the time. He showed again at her gallery in the fall of 1957. Three of his pieces: Atlantic, Bar, and Painting in Three Panels, were selected for and shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibit, “Young America 1957”. His pieces were considered radically different from the other twenty-nine artists’ works. Painting in Three Panels, for example, was particularly noted; at the time critics questioned his creating a work from three canvases. For instance, Michael Plante has said that, more often than not, Kelly’s multiple-panel pieces were cramped because of installation restrictions, which reduced the interaction between the pieces and the architecture of the room.
Kelly eventually moved away from Coenties Slip, where he had sometimes shared a studio with fellow artist and friend Agnes Martin, to the ninth floor of the high-rise studio/co-op Hotel des Artistes at 27 West 67th Street.
Kelly left New York City for Spencertown in 1970 and was joined there by his partner, photographer Jack Shear, in 1984. From 2001 until his death Kelly worked in a 20,000-square-feet studio in Spencertown reconfigured and extended by the architect Richard Gluckman. Kelly and Shear moved in 2005 to the residence they shared until the painter’s death, a wood-clad Colonial house built around 1815. Shear serves as the director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. In 2015, Kelly gifted his building design concept for a site of contemplation to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin. Titled Austin, the 2,715-square-foot stone building—which features colored glass windows, a totemic wood sculpture and black-and-white marble panels—is the only building Kelly designed and is his most monumental work. Austin, which Kelly designed thirty years prior, opened in February 2018.
Kelly died in Spencertown, New York on December 27, 2015, aged 92.