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Finding Abstraction


Finding Abstraction

“When I went to Paris...I

said, what am I going to

do? Why am I here?

“When I went to Paris...I said, what

am I going to do? Why am I here?

...I decided I had to find something

that was mine.”

...I decided I had to find

something that was mine.”

Ellsworth Kelly

After graduation and a summer of hard work as a gandy dancer (a railroad crosstie installer), Kelly earned enough money to move to Paris in October 1948.

He enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts — to qualify for a GI stipend — but skipped most classes so he could roam the French capital and beyond to study local art and architecture.

For the first few months, Kelly continued to paint in a figurative style, with pieces reminiscent of Picasso and others.

Egyptian Woman, 1949

Mother and Child, 1949

Nude, 1949

But by 1949, he would begin to break free of those influences.

Plant I, 1949

Plant II, 1949

Window I, 1949

Kilometer Marker, 1949

Window II, 1949

Toilette, 1949

In November, 1949, during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, he had a profound realization:

“I noticed the large windows between the paintings interested me more than the art exhibited.

I made a drawing of the window and later in my studio

I made what I considered my first object.”

Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris.

Two Canvases Pieced


With Strips of

Wood Painted Black

No Evidence of


“From then on, painting

as I had known it was

finished for me.”

Two Canvases Pieced


With Strips of

Wood Painted Black

No Evidence of


Paris Works

During his six years in Paris, Kelly explored concepts that would become key to the foundation of his artistic spirit.

Sketchbook pages from Paris, 1951-1953

and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added.”

“Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made,

He experimented with a variety of different modes of abstraction through drawing, collage, painting, sculpture, and even textiles.

Talmont, 1951

Untitled (Whites, Blacks, and Grays), 1951

Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance VIII, 1951

Light Reflection on Water, 1951

Just 5 Colors

Though Kelly struggled to gain recognition in the Paris art scene between 1949 and 1953, he created exploratory works that would prove central to the development of his artistic practice.

Window V, 1950

Gate-Board, 1950

Tennis Court, 1949

He began making paintings composed of multiple panels, a device inspired by altarpieces he had seen in medieval churches.

Méditerranée, 1962

La Combe II, 1951

Cité, 1951

In 1951, Kelly and some fellow artists convinced the owners of a local bookshop to turn the cellar into a gallery for emerging artists called Galerie Arnaud.

The second exhibit was

Kelly’s first solo show

This first show received mixed reviews

and cost him his part-time job as a grade-school art teacher at The American School in Paris.

When the director of the school saw Kelly’s work at Galerie Arnaud, he fired him, claiming such art was

“a bad influence for children.”

In the winter of 1954, Kelly became ill and was hospitalized for jaundice.

While recovering, he began to plan his return to the United States, encouraged by a positive review he’d read of an Ad Reinhardt exhibit at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York:

“The pigment is applied in flat, even anonymous looking coats… Yet the energy is there…”

Appreciation for Reinhardt’s style of painting gave Kelly hope that his work might be better received in New York. In June of 1954, he boarded the Queen Mary for America.

His artwork made the journey separately, transported by a steamship company that was willing to ship on credit more than

of his paintings, reliefs, and sculptures

made between 1949 and 1954.

Broad Street
New York

Kelly scarcely knew anyone when he arrived in New York City.

Kelly with Colors for a Large Wall, Broad Street studio, New York, 1955

In September 1954, through his only friend in New York, Fred Mitchell, he found a studio on Broad Street. 

For the next year, he took a night job sorting mail at the main branch of the Manhattan US Post Office so he could continue painting during the day.

It was then that he painted his first curvilinear forms.

Black Curves, 1955

Yellow Curves, 1954

The well-known sculptor, Alexander Calder, was an early and influential advocate of Kelly's work.

Delphine Seyrig and Ellsworth Kelly with Alexander Calder, Roxbury, Connecticut, 1957

After one of Calder’s visits to his studio, he mailed Kelly a note and a check to cover one month’s rent. 

In the note, Calder explained that he has written, on Kelly’s behalf, to the directors of the MoMA, Guggenheim and Newark Museum of Art. 

Letter from Alexander (Sandy) Calder, 1954

The director of the Guggenheim and a curator from MoMA visited Kelly, and though MoMA borrowed “Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris” as a possible acquisition, nothing came of it. 

Kelly with artworks and studies at his Broad Street studio, New York, 1956

In 1955, Betty Parsons (a widely respected gallerist), visited the Broad Street studio and offered Kelly his first solo show in the United States.

After this debut, Kelly began to distinguish  himself in the New York art scene.

Kelly, far left, with Betty Parsons and other artists, at her gallery, 1963

On The River

In July of 1956, Kelly moved to Coenties Slip, a three-block long stretch in lower Manhattan on the East River.

The area was filled with deserted warehouses that had once housed ship chandleries and sail-making lofts.

Caption, 19xx

Kelly was one of about a dozen artists drawn to the district by low rents — $30 a month for a large loft.

Jack Youngerman, Duncan Youngerman, Delphine Seyrig, Jerry Matthews, Dolores Matthews, Ellsworth Kelly, Lenore Tawney, and Robert Indiana, Coenties Slip, New York, 1958

The location was completely and deliberately apart from the New York abstract expressionists

(Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko), who all lived further uptown.

Agnes Martin and Kelly, Coenties Slip, New York, 1958

An area of demolished buildings, Coenties Slip also became a rich hunting ground for free materials that Kelly used for his art:

“After scouting the waterfront by day,

I would venture forth after dark on the

foraging forays that netted all the old,

notched beams and columns that

became my first constructions...”

Kelly was invited to participate in his first group show in New York, "Recent Drawings U.S.A.," at MoMA in 1956.

His ink study for Black

Ripe was exhibited

among drawings by

147 other artists

including Andy

Warhol, Josef Albers

and Larry Rivers.

His ink study for Black

Ripe was exhibited

among drawings by

147 other artists

including Andy

Warhol, Josef Albers

and Larry Rivers.

Black Ripe Study, 1956

​Kelly moved to 25 Coenties Slip ($45 a month) in 1957, where he remained until 1965. In fact, he was the last among his peers to leave “The Slip.”

“It was no. 25, its entire facade emblazoned with words, that daily confronted me with the format my work would assume.

Every ship that passed

on the river, every tug,

every barge, every

railroad car on every

flatboat, every truck

that passed below on

the slip... carried those

marks and legends that

set the style of my


Lower Manhattan, 1975

Study for York, 1958

Untitled (Empire State Building), 1956

Beauty Contest, 1956

Columbus Circle, 1957

Seaweed (1), 1957

Breaking Ground

When the Whitney Museum of American Art assembled the exhibit

Young America 1957:
30 Artists Under 35

it was Kelly's second group exhibition at a New York museum.

There he showed Barge, Atlantic, and Painting in Three Panels.

Soon after the show opened, the Whitney purchased his painting Atlantic, marking the first museum acquisition of an Ellsworth Kelly artwork.

Study for Atlantic, 1956

In 1959, Dorothy C. Miller, a young curator at New York’s MoMA, invited Kelly to exhibit in

Sixteen Americans

one in a series of group exhibitions designed to introduce innovative American artwork. Kelly displayed nine paintings, including Rebound and Running White; the museum acquired the latter for their collection in 1960.

A landmark moment in art history, the 1959 edition of “Sixteen Americans” signaled the waning of abstract expressionism and the meteoric rise of a new generation of artists including

Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella.

Chapter 04