Ellsworth Kelly, who began his influential 70-year career with thrilling advances in abstract painting that he would go on to explore and hone, with rigor and wit, for decades, died yesterday at the age of 92. Matthew Marks, the dealer who represented the artist in New York, confirmed his death, which was first reported in the New York Times.
Kelly’s accomplishments are enormous. He was among a handful of artists, emerging in the years after World War II, who defined the art of the past half-century, and with his death, that thrilling chapter of art history is, sadly, beginning to come to a close.
With expressive abstraction on the rise in the late 1940s in Europe and the United States, Kelly took a radically different path, creating works that are boldly spare, with decisive lines and solid colors—never a move wasted. Though carefully planned, they feel loose, natural, and elegantly at ease.
He looked around for ideas of what to paint and draw. “The found forms in a cathedral vault or in a plane of asphalt on a roadway seemed more valuable and instructive, an experience more sensual than geometrical painting,” he’s said. “Rather than making a picture that would be the interpretation of something I saw or the representation of an invented contents, I found an object and I presented it ‘as is.’ ”
A few key early works reveal the extent of his invention during those years: Window, Museum of Art, Paris (1949), which is a deadpan, life-sized painting on wood of precisely that—nothing but thick, straight black lines, and rectangles, gray and white; Seine (1951), which depicts a flowing river with just small black squares on a white canvas that he ordered using a system underpinned by chance; and Colors for a Large Wall (1951), made of 96 individual squares, also distributed by aleatoric means.
Kelly has been seen as a successor to the hard-edged abstraction of various early-20th-century avant-garde movements, as a precursor to the Minimalists of the 1960s, or even as a dissident compatriot of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, but as with so much great art, his complete body of work brushes aside categorization. “My work is about structure,” he wrote in 1969. “It has never been a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. I saw the Abstract Expressionists for the first time in 1954. My line of influence has been the ‘structure’ of things I liked: French Romanesque architecture, Byzantine, Egyptian, and Oriental art, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Klee, Picasso, Beckmann.”
“Things I liked.” That phrase feels essential. Kelly’s art is deeply humanist, and throughly immersed in the world. It is about soaking in visual pleasure—from buildings and bodies and plants and animals. His soothing curves, darting lines, and expanses of color welcome the eye and invite allusions. Asked to explain what he is communicating in his works, he once said, “It’s about perception, to feel it somehow.”
Kelly was born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York, along the Hudson River, about 90 minutes north of the city by train. He grew up in Oradell, about 10 miles from Manhattan, at the time a fairly rural area of New Jersey. He liked bird watching as a child. “My grandmother gave me a bird book, and I got to like their colors,” Kelly told Gwyneth Paltrow in 2011. “I said, “Jesus, a little blackbird with red wings.’ That was one of the first birds I saw in the pine tree behind my house, and I followed it as he flew into one of the trees—like he was leading me on. In a way, that little bird seems to be responsible for all of my paintings.”
Following high school, Kelly went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for three semesters and then signed up for the war in Europe, joining the Army’s 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion. After the war, he enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston but found the training too traditional, and so it was off to Paris, with which he had fallen in love, to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. “I didn’t go to Paris to go to school,” he told Rachel Cooke in the Observer, of London, earlier this year. “I just wanted to look around, and see a few paintings. The Beaux-Arts was the only place that didn’t care about attendance. I painted the nude that got me in, and then the tutor never saw me again.” Instead he soaked in the culture, visited with artists—like Brancusi and Calder, who once helped pay his rent—and experimented, heading deeper into abstraction.
A walk along the Seine in Paris inspired the same–named canvas, whose shimmering surface prefigures the Op art that artists like Bridget Riley would propagate a few years later. “Every night, walking home, I would walk down the outside quay and see the lights from the bridges on the water,” he told Jason Farago in the Guardian earlier this year. “I would just stand there and look at those reflections, and I thought: I want to do something that looks like this. But I don’t want to do a Pointillist painting. I said, I want to do something that flickers.” He randomly distributed the squares across a grid by pulling numbers from a box, adding one for each column as he neared center of the work.
While living outside of Paris during one summer around that time, Kelly saw a film of Jacques Cousteau swimming underwater. “The whole audience went, ‘Woo, ahh,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t they do that to my paintings?’ ” he said, laughing, in a recent video interview with Andrew M. Goldstein for Artspace magazine. “I want them to faint.” Pretty soon he would regularly be offering up completely abstract paintings and works on paper—seemingly straightforward shapes radiating pure hits of color, like Orange Red Relief, made of two rectangular panels, one of each color (from 1959, it is in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum) or Spectrum V, with thirteen panels in a color array (from 1969 and owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).
Kelly moved to New York in the mid 1950s, falling in with a group in downtown Manhattan that included Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns.
As his acclaim steadily grew, he began to produce large-scale, site-specific pieces, as in the glorious 64-foot-long, 104-panel Sculpture for a Large Wall that he made for the new Transportation Building in Philadelphia (dated 1956–57, it is now held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York); Color Panels for a Large Wall, 18 panels of vivid color he designed for the Central Trust Company of Cincinnati, Ohio (1978, National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.); a big untitled work for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York; and the five gargantuan vertical Dartmouth Panels (2012) that now grace the outside of the Hood Museum at that university in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Kelly’s work proves that abstraction, even in its most reductive forms, can address specific issues with nuance and grace. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., holds a four-panel white work, titled Memorial (1993–95). In Ground Zero (2003) he proposed covering that site with grass by crafting a tender collage—a green quadrilateral atop a New York Times aerial photo of the ruins.
Many of Kelly’s best paintings confidently but quietly exude a kind, gentle humor. They can recall the curves of elbows, knees, buttocks, flower petals. “I want my paintings in some way voluptuous, to a certain point—and certainly bodies are very voluptuous,” he’s said. Occasionally zest dashes of wit pulse through, like the two winking orange eyebrows that adorn Gold with Orange Reliefs (2013), which appeared in Kelly’s penultimate show at Marks, “At Ninety,” in 2013.
The artist’s list of major solo exhibitions is long. MoMA, the Met, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the NGA, Haus der Kunst in Munich, the Guggenheim, and Detroit Institute of Arts are among the institutions that have hosted shows—full-on retrospectives, as well as focused surveys of his works on paper, his prints, the metal sculptures he began making later in his career, and the tender, intimate drawings of plants that he has made throughout his career. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will reopen following renovations this spring with a Kelly show.
His work is held in numerous public collections. The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin, is currently at work on a non-denominational chapel that Kelly designed, which is expected to open in the next year or so. He is survived, according to the Times, by his husband, Jack Shear, who directs the nonprofit Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, and a brother, David.
In the 2011 interview with Paltrow, Kelly said that he was an atheist, but that if he believed in anything it would be “Nature. What this is.”
“You’re a pantheist then,” she said.
“Yes,” he continued. “I want to paint in a way that trees grow, leaves come out—how things happen.”
“I feel this earth is enough,” Kelly said later. “It’s so fantastic. Look up at the sun. It’s millions of years old and still to be millions more. And there are all the spaces we can never see.” He told a story about how he became an atheist and continued, “Who wants heaven? I want another 10 or 15 years of being here. When you get to age 90, you have to accept it. This has been my life. It is what it was. I put everything into it that I could.”