Line, Colour and Form: Ellsworth Kelly Creates Visual Tension in His Art
This year marks one hundred years since Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) was born. On the occasion of the centennial, learn more about one of the foremost American artists of abstraction and minimalism.
Born in Newburgh, New York, Kelly grew up in different cities in New Jersey.
A quiet, curious child, his hobbies included bird-watching, and displaying an early fondness for art and the natural world.
Upon his high school graduation, he moved to New York to study applied arts at the Pratt Institute starting in 1941.
His studies, however, were interrupted by World War II. He joined the army in 1943 – specifically, a top-secret “Ghost Army” unit – and his experience with concealment techniques like military camouflage would later influence his work.
During his army days, he would carry around small sketchbooks and draw his way through the different European countries that military duty would take him to.
After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill – which provides education benefit rates for tuition for US veterans – to enrol at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Later, he moved to Paris and eventually studied at the École Des Beaux-Arts. He had already been to the city back in 1944 while in the army, and the city left a lasting impression.
Ellsworth Kelly, Atlantic, 1956, oil on canvas, two parts, 80 x 114 inches (203 x 290 cm) © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
While living in the French capital, he met artists like Jean Arp, Michel Seuphor, Alberto Giacometti, Constantin Brancusi, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder – all of which left a mark in one way or another.
Influenced by John Cage, he began to experiment with “chance operations” in his work. He also spent long periods of time painting in the South.
In total, the artist spent six years in France, with summers on the island of Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany.
After France, he moved back to the US and lived in Manhattan – where he continued to foster a fascination with the relationship between shape and colour, becoming a central theme in his later work.
“It’s always a struggle to do the paintings and to feel I don’t want to be understood so easily. When I came back to the US after my years in Paris, I hadn’t seen Pollock, I hadn’t seen De Kooning, Barnett Newman, Rothko – any of them,” he said in a 2008 interview published in The Art Newspaper.
“My career started very slowly. I felt out of sync. They kept asking, ‘Why are you using such bright colours?’ I had to apologise for being a colour painter.”
Ellsworth Kelly, Tiger, 1953, oil on canvas, five joined panels, 80 ¾ x 85 ½ inches (205 x 217 cm) overall. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Courtesy: National Gallery of Art, Washington
Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled, 1996, redwood, 176 ½ in x 25 ½ in x 4 ½ in (448 x 65 x 11 cm) © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Ron Amstutz. Courtesy: Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland
In 1955, the art dealer Betty Parsons visited Kelly’s studio and invited him to have his show in her gallery. There, the artist showcased a total of thirty works – including Colors For A Large Wall.
This was Kelly’s first solo exhibition in the US – his first was in Paris Galerie Arnaud in 1951.
Later, he participated in the group show “Young America, 1957” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, cementing his status as a New York emerging artist.
His career continued to grow over the years, and Kelly became known as one of the prominent artists of his generation.
In 2012, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts.
“A careful observer of form, colour, and the natural world, Mr Kelly has shaped more than half a century of abstraction and remains a vital influence in American art,” read the announcement.
Kelly passed away in 2015 at the age of 92 years old. His paintings, sculptures, and drawings are in many permanent collections around the world, and his legacy in form and colour thrives on.
On the occasion of the artist’s centennial and the show “Ellsworth Kelly at 100” at Glenstone Museum at Potomac, Maryland (ongoing between May 2023 and March 2024), learn more about some of Ellsworth Kelly’s famous works below.
ELLSWORTH KELLY’S FAMOUS WORKS
Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin. © 2018 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
In January 2015, Kelly donated the plans for one of his most recognisable works, Austin, to the Blanton Museum of Art in the eponymous city in Texas.
At 2,715sqft (252sqm), the stone building features hand-blown coloured glass windows – its signature feature – as well as a totemic wooden sculpture and fourteen black and white marble panels.
The building opened in 2018 after the museum secured a US$15mil campaign.
Austin is Kelly’s only architectural design and is a touristic landmark for the Texan city.
Though he explored a variety of mediums across his practice, Kelly is primarily famous for his paintings, which are often recognised by the large, abstract forms and hard-edge techniques.
Rich in forms, colours, and spatial unity, his works – often brimming with visual tension – tend to be described as “awe-inspiring”. Often working with large-scale works, his studies of contour, negative space, tension, and chance pivoted frequently across his career.
Though often associated with the abstract expressionism movement that was taking off in New York upon his arrival in the early 1950s, Kelly preferred the “structural” over the gestural, and instead cited influences like French Romanesque architecture, Byzantine, Egyptian, Oriental art, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Klee, Picasso and Beckmann.
‘SPECTRUM IX’ (2014)
Spectrum IX, 2014, acrylic on canvas, twelve joined panels. 107 ¾ x 96 inches (274 x 243 cm). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Ron Amstutz. Courtesy: Matthew Marks Gallery
Between 1953 and 2014, Kelly created a total of eight paintings as part of his “Spectrum” series. With 13 bands of colour, Kelly’s interpretation of a spectrum starts and ends with the same shade of yellow.
“It’s very difficult to do a spectrum because each colour has to be the right red, the right purple, and they have to blend together,” he allegedly said.
‘COLORS FOR A LARGE WALL’ (1951)
In Colors For A Large Wall, Kelly’s largest painting at the time (now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), each square was placed randomly – a “chance” technique that the artist was exploring at the time.
“My collages are only ideas for things much larger – things to cover walls,” he wrote to John Cage in 1950.
In 1978, he would make that come to fruition with Color Panels For A Large Wall, a monumental painting in the lobby of a building in Cincinnati.
‘GREEN BLUE RED’ (1963)
In the early 1960s, Kelly explored the use of green, blue and red across multiple works, such as Red Blue Green and Blue Green Red.
One of these is the large oil painting work, Green Blue Red, which epitomises the optical interest that Kelly was so skilled at developing by using shapes, studied placement, contrast and solid/pure colours.
Green Blue Red is on view at The Broad in Los Angeles.
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Cover Credit: Ellsworth Kelly, Painting for a White Wall, 1952, oil on canvas, five joined panels. 23 ¾ x 71 ¼ inches (60 x 181 cm). © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo: Ron Amstutz. Courtesy: Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat