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Collections> Browse Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly
Holdings (127)
4 paintings, 3 sculptures, 1 multiple, 111 edition prints/proofs, 4 unique works on paper, 1 book, 1 drawing, 1 periodical, 1

Wikipedia About Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly (born May 31, 1923) is an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker associated with hard-edge painting, Color Field painting and the minimalist school. His works demonstrate unassuming techniques emphasizing simplicity of form, similar to the work of John McLaughlin and Kenneth Noland. Kelly often employs bright colors. He lives and works in Spencertown, New York. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Ellsworth Kelly, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

For more than fifty years, Ellsworth Kelly has worked to refine elements of the observed world into rigorous abstraction with a bold clarity and elegance. In doing so, he has demonstrated remarkable versatility as a painter, sculptor, draftsman, photographer, and printmaker. “My work has always been about vision, the process of seeing,” he notes. “Each work of art is a fragment of a larger context… . I’ve always been interested in things that I see that don’t make sense out of context, that lead you into something else.”1 His flat, immaculate compositions of pure line, simple forms, and saturated, unmodulated color are, in essence, found images, distillations of architectural details, shadows, plants, and other subtle forms that often might be overlooked. The contour of a leaf, the arch of a bridge and its reflection in water, and the soft curve of a hillside seen from the road have inspired paintings and sculptures alike.

Kelly’s early art training was in the academic mode. He studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1941 to 1942, and, after serving in the armed forces in Europe from 1944 to 1945, he returned to the United States to study on the G.I. Bill at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1948, he returned to Paris, where he lived and worked until 1954, producing an important body of paintings, drawings, collages, and photographs. Since then, he has lived and worked in New York State. Though Kelly’s work has been aligned with Pop Art, Color Field Painting, and Minimalism, it is more aptly placed along the fringes of these movements. Because he worked in Paris, his development in the 1950s occurred independently of such artists as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose art was a direct reaction to the then-dominant style of Abstract Expressionism. Kelly’s first mature works made in France predated by more than a decade the paintings of Frank Stella, Brice Marden, and other Americans associated with Minimalist Art in the 1960s.

From his early collages made in Paris to his large, freestanding sculptures, Kelly has continually searched for ways whereby his art might compose itself through chance—his forms, he has stressed, are shapes that “have always been there.”2Drawing Cut into Strips and Rearranged by Chance, made in 1950, borrowed a technique used by Dadaist Jean Arp, whom Kelly had met in Paris that year.3 It also was influenced by the artist’s correspondence with composer John Cage, who, during their first meeting in Paris in 1949, showed Kelly some cut Japanese fabric stencils that he had been collecting from Paris shops.4 The collaged composition recombines fragments from two of Kelly’s rejected drawings. Though the order in which the strips are arranged is random, the artist nonetheless pasted them to the paper in a deliberate row to avoid overlap, and thus any reference to depth, since the illusion of flatness was now of paramount importance in his art.5

Kelly returned to New York in 1954, and soon after moved to Coenties Slip, a former landing place for wooden ships in lower Manhattan that housed a community of artists, including Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, and Jack Youngerman, in deserted sail-making lofts. It was here that he made the painted aluminum sculpture Gate in 1959. He once described the work as taking shape by chance from an X he outlined on an envelope: “I folded it and cut it and it stood. I did it almost without thinking, almost as if I didn’t decide.”6 The X-configuration used in the sculpture occurs frequently in Kelly’s art of the late 1950s. Though it retains an element of flatness and frontality, Gate was a pioneering piece for the artist in that it marked the first time one of his forms moved fully off the wall, breaking ground for his sculptures in the round (which were initiated that same year) as well as for large-scale, freestanding indoor and outdoor pieces, which he has executed to this day in various metals and in wood.

It was also while living in Coenties Slip that Kelly painted Black Curve (1962). The painting is related to five canvases from the early 1960s that were composed of free-drawn curves executed in various colors. He has often worked in cycles, alternating between the curve, the rectangle, and other forms that interest him, moving freely between painting, sculpture, and works on paper. The curve in this painting was made during a period when the artist’s shapes were often organic. After 1969, his curve paintings and wall reliefs were always “fragments of a circle,” based on geometric figures rather than found contours.7

From his earliest paintings, Kelly has been interested in liberating color and form from content, asserting that the painting is an object, and the white wall, essential to the perception of the piece, is its ground. Red Green Blue (1964) is one of the few canvases executed in the 1960s in which he chose not to separate the colors into individual panels, a practice he had begun during his years in Paris. Kelly’s interest in flat, unmodulated color is evident in the painting. Though not interested in texture and gesture, he nonetheless avoids a mechanized look, and strives for his hand to be apparent in the finished surface.8

Red Yellow Blue III (1966) is one of the first works he created as a large-scale, multiple-panel painting. By separating the vivid panels, Kelly forged a concrete relationship between the primary colors, seen as pure forms, and the white wall, read as a field or ground. The scale of the work creates ambiguous boundaries, as color continuously assumes part of one’s peripheral vision. “I am less interested in marks on the panels than the ‘presence’ of the panels themselves,” the artist remarked in 1969. “In Red Yellow Blue, the square panels present color.”9 One of the first of his generation to realize the possibilities of the shaped canvas, Kelly had been creating numerous works by the late 1960s in which his forms were the paintings themselves. In the double canvas Yellow/Red (1968), the positioning of the joined, shaped panels on the white wall is key, as the work becomes a study in perspective. Though perceived as pure, hard-edged shapes, both Red Yellow Blue III and Yellow/Red can be traced to Kelly’s observant eye, as they recall the artist’s photographs of shadows cast by open barn doors in the New York countryside.

Kelly considers his three-dimensional work to be a natural extension of his painting. Since 1959, he has explored the notion of a “folded” form in a variety of freestanding and wall-mounted works. Green Rocker (1968) is one of a group of floor pieces, many of which were painted in two colors, one on the top, one on the underside. Green Rocker, however, is a monochrome, since its planes are flattened to a greater degree, permitting an intimate relationship between the work and the gallery floor. While the title seems to allude to a rocking chair or a child’s hobbyhorse, the sculpture is stationary, its movement merely implied. The curved, oval contours and color also relate to the delicate line drawings of plants and leaves—particularly water lilies—central to Kelly’s work since the 1950s.10

Double Curve (1988), an outdoor sculpture in bronze commissioned for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, has its origins, like many of Kelly’s three-dimensional forms, in earlier paintings, drawings, and studies. The eighteen-foot-tall totems that compose this piece derive from, among other sources, his Brooklyn Bridge series of paintings from the 1960s and the 1959 painting Rebound. They also relate to a 1976 pressed-paper pulp work he made at the print workshop Tyler Graphics Ltd. in 1976. The standing forms of the sculpture have been likened to stele, upright stone slabs used as markers that appear throughout the history of art. They activate the garden space in which they are sited, forming a relationship with grass, trees, and particularly sky, all of which provide the background for the work.

Throughout his career, Kelly has used abstraction as a means for viewing the world with coherence and clarity. His works articulate his concerns about form, color, and their relationship to physical space, and present in themselves an opportunity to examine his process of seeing.

  1. Kelly in conversation with Mark Rosenthal, January 1991, New York. Cited in Mark Rosenthal, ed., Artists at Gemini G.E.L. (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993), 83.

  2. Kelly, interview with Henry Geldzahler, in Paintings, Sculptures and Drawings by Ellsworth Kelly (Washington, D.C.: Washington Gallery of Modern Art; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1963–1964), unpaginated.

  3. Arp’s work Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (1916–1917) was made by dropping pieces of torn paper onto a larger sheet, and gluing them where they fell.

  4. “I met John Cage in 1949 for two days. He was staying at the same hotel. He introduced himself to me, and I didn’t know who he was then; but a friend of mine said, he’s one of the new music people. I showed him one of my first abstract things, and he was the first to make me feel like maybe I could do something.” Kelly interview with Peter von Ziegesar, “How Chance Operations Guide Work: An Interview with Ellsworth Kelly,” FORUM 14, nos. 2–3 (June/July, 1989): 26.

  5. Yve-Alain Bois, “Kelly’s Trouvailles: Findings in France,” in Yve-Alain Bois, Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings 1948–1955, exh. cat. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Art Museums, 1999), 23.

  6. Kelly, interview with Henry Geldzahler.

  7. Artist’s statement, March 21, 1996 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  8. Kelly began this painting in New York in September 1964 and finished it in October at Joan Miró’s graphic studio in the town of Levallois, France, prior to its first showing in Paris. Artist’s statement, April 2, 1974 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  9. Kelly, “Notes from 1969,” in Barbara Rose and Ellsworth Kelly, Ellsworth Kelly: Paintings and Sculptures 1963–1979, exh. cat. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1979), 32.

  10. In 1952, while living in France, Kelly visited Monet’s studio in Giverny, where he saw the artist’s late water lily-paintings and shortly afterward painted a green monochrome canvas.

Engberg, Siri. “Ellsworth Kelly.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


artist’s quote artist’s quote Kelly, Ellsworth, 1969

The form of my painting is the content. My work is made of single or multiple panels: rectangle, curved or square. I am less interested in marks on the panels than the “presence” of the panels themselves. In “Red, Yellow, Blue,” the square panels present color. It was made to exist forever in the present, it is an idea and can be repeated anytime in the future. Ellsworth Kelly, 1969