Born 1923

American painter, sculptor and printmaker, Ellsworth Kelly has been one of the major practitioners of abstract art in the USA since World War II.  As early as the 1950s, he developed an individual approach that influenced the course of minimal art, color field painting, hard-edge painting, and post-painterly abstraction without becoming fully a part of any of these movements.  He was encouraged in high school by a sympathetic art teacher, although his parents were reluctant for him to be an artist, and agreed to support only his training in the technical arts, which he pursued at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York (1941-2).  In 1943, he was inducted in the US Army where, at his request, he was assigned to the camouflage unit.  In 1944, he travelled to Europe, where a short stay in Paris inspired him to return to France at the end of the decade.  Following his military discharge (1945), he studied at the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts School (1946-7).  With the support of a US education grant on the G.I. Bill, he returned in 1948 to Paris, using it as a European base for six years.  During this period he made a trip to Colmar to see Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece; the construction of his later painting may have been prompted in part by its multi-panel format.

In Paris, Kelly continued to paint the figure, but by May 1949 he had made his first abstract paintings.  As a painter and sculptor, he worked from then on in an exclusively abstract mode, although throughout his career he continued to make outline drawings and prints of nature and people.  Picasso had been Kelly’s initial influence, but in Paris he became involved with the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing and with the exploitation of chance by dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer and writer John Cage, both of whom he had met as fellow guests at his Paris hotel.  Also important were his encounters in Paris with the artists Michel Seuphor (b 1901), George Vantongerloo, Constantin Brancusi, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder and with the work of Sophie Taeuber-Arp.  Kelly became enthralled by Parisian 20th-century architecture and by the play of light and shadow over its stark surfaces; he used them as reference points for his paintings, such as Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris (1949); only later, however, when he was confident of his originality, did he publish photographs documenting these sources.  His insistence in such works on deriving abstract form, contour, tonal or colour contrast from observed reality distinguished his work from that of such contemporary American painters as Josef Albers and Ad Reinhardt, whose theories and concepts of abstraction were not significant forces on his art.  Kelly’s interest in the painting as an object anticipated Jasper Johns and Pop art.

In 1954, Kelly moved back to the US, in the belief that abstract expressionism was not so dominant as to preclude an acceptance of his art.  He moved into a loft in Manhattan within a community of artists that included Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Kelly's colleague from Paris, Jack Youngerman (b 1926).  He progressed from wood relief panels to large painted canvases such as Atlantic (1956), which juxtaposed blocks of single, flat colours with silhouetted shapes, abstracted from organic forms.  By the late 1950s, Kelly had an international reputation.  He was also producing sculptures such as Wave Relief I (1959) in which he cut out flat forms and silhouetted them against interior walls, or sometimes placed them in the natural environment.  While his painting stressed shape and planar masses (often assuming non-rectilinear formats), his sculpture was insistently two-dimensional.  For a period in the mid-1960s, Kelly came close to Op art in his use of geometric configurations and color contrasts that stressed perceptual ambiguities.  His work of this period also provided a useful bridge from the vanguard American geometric abstraction of the 1930s and early 1940s to the Minimalism and reductive art of the mid-1960s and 1970s.

In 1970, Kelly left the city to live in upstate New York.  Having gone through a period of rectilinear geometry in his painting, he began again to employ curves in two-colour paintings made of separate panels and in sculptures in a subtle homage to his new pastoral surroundings, for example Blue Curve III (oil on canvas, 1972).  In another response to his new environment, in 1973 Kelly began regularly making large-scale outdoor sculpture, often in totem-like configurations such as Curve XXIII (stainless steel, 1981). He used steel, aluminium, stainless steel, and in the 1980s, bronze.  In these he was not concerned with color, except for that of the material itself in order to stress shape and give the pieces consistency and easier maintenance.  From 1964 he produced prints and editioned sculptures at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles and Tyler Graphics Ltd near New York City.  His prints related to his work in other media; his first published series was Suite of Twenty-seven Color Lithographs (1964-5), for example Blue and Orange and Green.  He also worked in a large scale for major public pieces, including commissions for Lincoln Park, Chicago (1981), Dallas (1985) and Barcelona (1986).  Drawings and works on paper, particularly figure and numerous plant drawings, have consistently partnered painting and sculpture in his productive career.

Oxford University Press