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, although he has succeeded in not being defined fully by any of these movements. 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 visual contrast to these curvilinear flora, 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 may be 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 Ecole des Beaux-Arts on the G.I. Bill and immersing himself in French museums. While in Paris, he began abstract painting, 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. He moved to Spencertown in 1970 and lived there for the remainder of his life, continuing to innovate within painting and printmaking.
In 2013, in celebration of Kelly’s 90th birthday, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC mounted an exhibition of his prints. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Phillips Collection in Washington, DC and Museum of Modern Art in New York also held solo exhibitions of the artist.
Kelly’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions at dOCUMENTA (III, IV, VI, and IX), Kassel; Venice Biennale (1966 and 2007); Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; Fondation Beyeler, Basel; Haus der Kunst, Munich; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum Wiesbaden, DE; Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; Serpentine Gallery, London; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. His work is included in major public collections, among them the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Tate Modern, London.