Ellsworth Kelly, Who Shaped Geometries on a Bold Scale, Dies at 92
Ellsworth Kelly, one of America’s great 20th-century abstract artists, who in the years after World War II shaped a distinctive style of American painting by combining the solid shapes and brilliant colors of European abstraction with forms distilled from everyday life, died on Sunday at his home in Spencertown, N.Y. He was 92.
His death was announced by Matthew Marks of the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan.
Mr. Kelly was a true original, forging his art equally from the observational exactitude he gained as a youthful bird-watching enthusiast; from skills he developed as a designer of camouflage patterns while in the Army; and from exercises in automatic drawing he picked up from European surrealism.
Although his knowledge of, and love for, art history was profound, he was little affected by the contemporary art of his time and country. He was living in France during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in New York and only distantly aware of art in the United States.
When he returned to America in 1954, he settled on what was then an out-of-the-way section of Manhattan for art, the Financial District, and had little interaction with many of his contemporaries. The result was a deeply personal and exploratory art, one that subscribed to no ready orthodoxies, and that opened up wide the possibilities of abstraction for his own generation and those to come.
Born in Newburgh, N.Y., on May 31, 1923, Mr. Kelly studied painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston after his discharge from the Army in 1945. But his formative years as an artist were in Paris, which he had visited briefly during World War II, and where he returned to live in 1948 with support from the G.I. Bill.
The seven years he subsequently spent there had continuing emotional resonance for him throughout his life. In a 1996 interview with The New York Times, he recalled his early days in the city:
“Paris was gray after the war. I liked being alone. I liked being a stranger. I didn’t speak French very well, and I liked the silence.”
The Influence of Paris
When he arrived, he was painting figures influenced by Picasso and Byzantine mosaics. But he quickly immersed himself in museums, adding both Asian art and Matisse to his eclectic store of influences.
He also spent time outside Paris visiting Romanesque churches, and the relationship between art and architecture remained important to him, evident in the many public commissions he completed late in his career.
As isolated as he may have felt in Paris, he met extraordinary people. Some of them, like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, were Americans passing through. Others were resident legends.
He visited the studio of the abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whose simplification of natural shapes remained one of Mr. Kelly’s formal ideals. He was introduced to the Surrealist Jean Arp, whose use of chance as a compositional device Mr. Kelly adopted. The sculptor Alexander Calder became a friend, as did the young American painter Jack Youngerman.
Within a year of his arrival, Mr. Kelly was painting his first abstract pictures using a mix of chance elements and references to nature, which he defined as everything seen in the real world.
“I started to look at the city around me, and that became my source,” he said.
The early paintings and drawings were derived from patterns found in sidewalk grates, or configurations of pipes on the side of a building. A gridlike field of black and white squares was inspired by the play of light on the Seine. A painted wood cutout, “Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris” (1949), corresponded in dimensions and form to the title object.
“I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures,” he told The Times in 1996. ”I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me.”
Mr. Kelly’s use of found elements went beyond just letting his eyes wander. It led him to create purely abstract paintings composed of randomly arranged and joined colored panels, a radical move even for him.
“I wondered, ‘Can I make a painting with just five panels of color in a row?’ I loved it, but I didn’t think the world would. They’d think, ‘It’s not enough.’ ”
It did take time for the art world to catch up with him. Although he had a one-person show in Paris in 1951, there was scant response and he was turned down for several group exhibitions. A piece he submitted for one exhibition, a relief painting, was rejected on the ground that it wasn’t art. Meanwhile, his G.I. Bill support was coming to an end, forcing him to seek jobs as an art teacher, a textile designer and a custodian.
Although he had been away from America when the great tidal pull of Abstract Expressionism was in full force, he was aware of it enough to know that it wasn’t temperamentally for him. “I didn’t want an art that was so subjective,” he said. “I wanted to get away from the cult of the personality.”
Finding Favor Back Home
The anonymous role of the Romanesque church artist remained a model. But in 1954, after reading a favorable review in ARTnews of an Ad Reinhardt show in New York City, he began to think that his own fairly spare abstract work might find favor there, and he returned to the United States.
Short on cash when he arrived, he ended up living in a half-deserted section of Lower Manhattan near South Street Seaport, in a 19th-century sailmaker’s loft on Coenties Slip.
His neighbors there eventually included the artists Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney and Mr. Youngerman, as well Mr. Youngerman’s wife, the actress Delphine Seyrig. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had arrived in the area earlier; Barnett Newman had a studio on nearby Wall Street.
Their lofts were spartan. Few had kitchens or hot water, and there were constant threats of eviction. The rewards were abundant space and light, as well as removal from the Abstract Expressionist scene farther uptown.
For Mr. Kelly, the open skies of the harbor and the streets paved with stone blocks that had been whaling ships’ ballast softened the culture shock of shifting from Old World to New. And just as he used the shapes of Parisian architecture in his earlier paintings, the grand arches of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge appeared in his New York City work.
Despite his remote location, the art world found him. The dealer Betty Parsons, who also represented Reinhardt, visited Mr. Kelly’s studio and offered him a solo exhibition in 1956.
That same year he received his first sculptural commission, the mural-size “Sculpture for a Large Wall,” for the lobby of the Transportation Building in Philadelphia. In 1957 the Whitney Museum of American Art bought a painting, “Atlantic,” which depicted two white wave-like arcs against solid black. It was Mr. Kelly’s first museum purchase.
In 1959 Dorothy C. Miller, the influential Museum of Modern Art curator, included Mr. Kelly’s work in “Sixteen Americans,” an important survey of emerging artists that included Johns, Rauschenberg and Youngerman, as well as Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson and Jay De Feo.
By the early 1960s, Mr. Kelly’s career was firmly if quietly established, although it would be decades before he gained the high profile enjoyed by some of his contemporaries. This was partly because his work was basically contemplative in spirit, and partly because — during a period defined by movements like Pop, Op and Minimalism — he fit no ready category.
In addition, he worked in several media, experimentally combining at least two. Along with paintings, drawings and collages, he produced free-standing and relief sculptures. In addition to making cut-out wood and steel panels that functioned as monochromatic paintings, he composed works from two or more overlapping canvases, effectively creating a hybrid of painting and sculpture.
In doing so, he made some of the first shaped canvases of the postwar period. And stressing the object quality of his works led him almost seamlessly to free-standing sculpture. The simplicity, flat color, bold scale, and especially his cultivation of a geometry full of flexible organic undertones formed a crucial example for the Minimalists.
In 1965, after nearly a decade with Parsons, he began to show with the Sidney Janis Gallery. A year later he had work selected for the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale; in 1968 he was in Documenta IV in Kassel, Germany. He would subsequently be included in three more Venice Bienniales and in the 1977 and 1992 editions of Documenta, the international exhibition held every five years in Germany.
In 1970, after living for several years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he moved permanently to the upstate town of Spencertown, where he eventually built a large studio and designed a parklike garden to display his outdoor sculptures.
In 1973 he had his first American retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; his second, in 1996 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, traveled to Los Angeles, London and Munich. His first major European retrospective was at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1979.
Other surveys focused on specific bodies of work. These included a sculpture retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982; a retrospective of works on paper at the Fort Worth Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1987; and a print retrospective at the Detroit Institute of Arts, also in 1987.
In 1992 “Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France” was organized by the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris and the National Gallery in Washington.
In recognition of his close early relationship to France, Mr. Kelly was given three awards by the French government: Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1993 and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2002.
‘Forever in the Present’
Mr. Kelly’s importance in American postwar art was increasingly acknowledged from the late 1970s onward, in part thanks to strong gallery representation. In the 1970s and 1980s, his work was handled jointly by Leo Castelli and Blum Helman. In 1992, he joined the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan and the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London. Along with gallery and museum shows, those decades also brought numerous public and institutional commissions.
A characteristic permanent installation might consist of a series of large single-color painted canvases or steel panels in varying shapes — wedges, arcs, triangles, trapezoids — cartwheeling across an expanse of wall.
One of his most moving installations, though, was one of his quietest. Made for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, it consisted of a plain white fan-shaped form floating opposite a triptych of three rectangular white panels. Suggesting the image of a great bird lifting upward over closed windows, the piece distilled the rigorously refined visual vocabulary Mr. Kelly had developed over a long career.
In 2013, Mr. Kelly received the National Medal of Arts, considered the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence, from President Obama.
He is survived by his husband, Jack Shear, and a brother, David.
Mr. Kelly was as adamant about what his art was not as about what it was. Unlike the work of the early European modernists he admired, it was not about social theory. It was not about geometry or abstraction as ends in themselves. And although he derived many of his shapes from the natural world, his art was not about nature.
“My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said in 1996. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.”
Although he was interested in history and concerned about his place in it, he spoke of his own work as existing “forever in the present.”
“I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living,” he said. “This is an illusion, of course. What I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.”