Skip to content
Back to List

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923, Newburgh, NY – d. 2015, Spencertown, NY) was an important American abstract painter and a pioneering figure of Minimalism, hard-edge painting and Color Field painting. Working across disciplines, his practice includes painting, sculpture and printmaking.

Throughout his career, Kelly explored his deep interest in both abstract and botanical forms. His early black and white lithographs interpret the rounded contours of plants and fruits in a minimalistic style. While seemingly in sharp contrast to the curvilinear flora with which he started his career, his later hard-edged abstractions are similarly inspired by natural bodies and man-made subjects such as tree branches or shadows under a bridge. Kelly then reduces these forms into the geometric, intensely colorful shapes for which he is best known.

Kelly was born in Newburgh, New York and raised in New Jersey. After graduating high school, he began studying applied arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1941, but he left in 1943 to enter the military. He was assigned to a camouflage unit, where he trained in the silkscreen printing process as well as combat duty before the unit was deployed to Europe. This experience ultimately influenced Kelly’s work both in precision and imagery, although printmaking would not become a major part of his practice until the mid-1960s. Following the conclusion of World War II and his subsequent discharge from the army, Kelly continued his artistic studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston between 1946 and 1948, at which time he began drawing plants. He then lived in Paris from 1948 through 1954, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts on the G.I. Bill and immersing himself in French museums. While in Paris, he began abstract painting, as he was first inspired by reflected light on the Seine.

Kelly returned to New York in 1954, intrigued by a review of Ad Reinhardt’s work. Initially, in an arts scene focused on abstract expressionism, he struggled to establish a practice that eliminated gestural brushstrokes, but this allowed him to experiment with hard-edged shapes and saturated colors. In the 1960s, he introduced irregularly angled canvas into his work, and in the 1970s, he began incorporating curved shapes. In later works, Kelly refined his color palette and introduced new ideas, sometimes layering contrasting colors. With his colored paper pulp prints, Kelly pushed technical boundaries in printmaking. He moved to Spencertown in 1970 and lived there for the remainder of his life, continuing to innovate within painting and printmaking.

In 2018, Mary Ryan Gallery held an exhibition of Kelly’s colored paper pieces, lithographs and screenprints.

In 2013, in celebration of Kelly’s 90th birthday, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC mounted an exhibition of his prints.

Kelly’s work has most recently been included in solo and group exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2019), Whitney Museum of American Art (2019), Centre Pompidou (2019), Oklahoma City Museum of Art (2019), Museum of Modern Art (2018), Metropolitan Museum of Art (2018), Musée de l’Orangerie (2018), Norton Simon Museum (2018), J. Paul Getty Museum (2017), Museum für Moderne Kunst (2017), British Museum (2017), Tate Liverpool (2017), Museum Voorlinden (2016), Stedelijk Museum (2016), Tate Modern (2016), the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (2011), Venice Biennale (1966 and 2007) and Documenta (III, IV, VI, and IX).

His work is included in major public collections, among them the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Broad Museum, CA; Centre Pompidou, FR; Crystal Bridges Museum, AR; Haus der Kunst, Munich, DE; J. Paul Getty Museum, CA; Los Angeles County Museum, CA; Milwaukee Art Museum, WI; Morgan Library and Museum, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, CA; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, ES; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; National Gallery of Australia, AU; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Rhode Island School of Design Museum, RI; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY; Tate Modern, London, UK and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.
Read more