(1923 – 2015), United States

Ellsworth Kelly Biography

Executed in vivid hues and often at monumental scales, Ellsworth Kelly's paintings are regularly described by critics as emotionally intense.

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Without any trace of the artist's hand on their pristine surfaces, Kelly rendered scenes, objects, or experiences to a few, flat colours. Born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York, Ellsworth Kelly studied technical art at the Pratt Institute in the early 1940s. Between 1943 and 1945 he served in the military, creating decoys out of rubber and wood to inflate the Allied troops' numbers and mislead enemy fire. This practice of imitating weight and movement with the bare minimum—creating impressions out of simple forms—would go on to influence the artworks for which he later became known.

After completing his service, Ellsworth Kelly enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1948 he moved to Paris and continued his studies at the École des beaux-arts under the GI Bill. In Paris he was exposed to a range of contemporary and historical art movements. His early works show the influence of surrealist systems in particular.

Ellsworth Kelly's early works were especially inspired by the chance-based collages of his acquaintance Jean Arp. Kelly's Seine (1951) drawing, for example, depicts light on the surface of the Seine River. To create this image, the artist divided his canvas into a grid and pulled numbers from a box to determine which squares he would colour in.

During the 1950s, in addition to works such as Seine, Kelly began to create reliefs and collages while travelling through Paris and meeting significant members of the mid-20th-century European avantgarde, including Alexander Calder and Francis Picabia. In 1954, the artist returned to New York City.

The New York art scene that Kelly returned to was dominated by Abstract Expressionism. Though he often worked on a large scale similar to the Abstract Expressionists, Kelly avoided the movement's key gestural qualities. Instead, he approached his canvases in his signature style, which would come to be known as part of the hard-edge painting movement.

Paintings such as Blue Green Red (1963), in which horizontal forms in green, red, and blue are stacked against each other, exemplify Ellsworth Kelly's sharp approach to colour and shape. In the late 1950s, the artist began also fabricating sculptural objects such as Gate (1959), in which the approach of his painting practice entered three-dimensional space.

American artist Glenn Ligon took Ellsworth Kelly's Blue Black (2000)—a 28-foot wall sculpture made of honeycomb aluminium that Kelly created for the Pulitzer Arts Foundation Foundation, St. Louis—as the inspiration for the group exhibition he curated at the Foundation in 2017. Speaking to Ocula Magazine about the artist, Ligon described Kelly as a 'master of distilling things', saying 'The discussion around his paintings is formalist but they're very emotional in some ways.'

Ellsworth Kelly died in Spencertown, New York, in 2015. His final work was a 2,700-square-foot chapel, opened posthumously in 2018 at the University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art. Kelly continues to be exhibited world-wide in significant solo and group exhibitions including Postwar Abstraction: Variations, Oklahoma City Museum of Art (2020), and Ellsworth Kelly: Fenêtres, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2019).

Biography by Ocula | 2020

Ellsworth Kelly
featured artworks

Melon Leaf (Feuille de Melon) by Ellsworth Kelly contemporary artwork painting, print
Ellsworth Kelly Melon Leaf (Feuille de Melon), 1965-1966 Transfer lithograph on laid paper
90.5 x 62.9 cm
Galerie Thomas Contact Gallery
Spectrum by Ellsworth Kelly contemporary artwork works on paper
Ellsworth Kelly Spectrum, 1972 Collage on paper
121.9 x 264.2 cm
He Art Museum
Wild Grape by Ellsworth Kelly contemporary artwork works on paper, drawing
Ellsworth Kelly Wild Grape, 1960 Graphite on paper
42.5 x 34.9 cm
Pace Gallery
Burdock by Ellsworth Kelly contemporary artwork works on paper, drawing
Ellsworth Kelly Burdock, 1969 Ink on paper
73.7 x 58.4 cm
Pace Gallery

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