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Chapter 1 — Process
Ellsworth Kelly’s work does not fit neatly into an art historical category or movement.
Chapter 1 — Line, Form, Color
His particular approach to artmaking involved “finding” flat objects or shapes in the world that captured his attention and lifting them out of reality with abstract creations. To achieve this, Kelly restricted himself to art’s most basic components: Line, Form, Color.
Chapter 1 — Color Palette
These fundamentals carried the breadth of Kelly’s artistic vision throughout his career. His unique color palette was established early in his practice; he carefully mixed and applied "pure" and vibrant spectral colors, plus black and white. Whereas many other artists combined colors and shading, his art was unapologetically monochromatic.
Chapter 1 — Surface
To create art that appeared “anonymous” without a trace of his personality, Kelly painstakingly eliminated any brushstrokes in his work.
Chapter 1 — Shaped Canvas
Through form, he also blurred the lines between painting and sculpture by breaking free of the standard square and rectangular canvas. Blue Red Green Black, 2004. Orange Red Relief (for Delphine Seyrig), 1990. Black Relief with White, 1994.
Chapter 1 — Relationship to Space
A Kelly canvas was not meant to adorn a wall, but to activate the space.
Chapter 1 — The Observer
Ellsworth Kelly had an incomparable talent for noticing details in his immediate surroundings that were often overlooked by others.
Chapter 1 — River Seine
Light glinting off the River Seine. Seine, 1951.
Chapter 1 — Meschers
La Combe II, 1951 La Combe III, 1952 Shadows created by a metal staircase. Shadows on Stairs, Villa La Combe, Meschers, 1950. La Combe I, 1950. La Combe II, 1951. La Combe III, 1952.
Chapter 1 — Boston Panels
Kelly’s dramatic installation, The Boston Panels materialized over several years, as he methodically worked through drawings and color studies inspired by his simple sketch of the windows of a small seaside hotel. Boston Panels, 1996—1998.
Chapter 1 — Rocker sculpture
From these initial doodles, his work was then methodically planned and executed, often after countless preliminary drawings & models. Untitled (Rocker), 1997.
Chapter 1 — Revisited forms (Concorde; White Plaque: Bridge Arch and Reflection; Spectrum)
This retroactive process sparked many of Kelly’s concepts. Concord. Blue Concorde Relief. White Plaque: Bridge Arch and Reflection. Spectrum I. Spectrum IX.
Chapter 2 — Childhood
Born in Newburgh, New York, on May 31, 1923, Kelly’s family moved to Oradell, New Jersey, when he was a very young boy. He was the sensitive middle child, often content to spend quiet hours drawing.
Chapter 2 — Birdwatching
“I remember vividly the first time I saw a Redstart, a small black bird with a few very bright red marks.” “I believe my early interest in nature taught me how to see.”
Chapter 2 — First experiences with drawing
In one vivid art memory from his childhood, Kelly recalled being in school working on a class project to make a “drawing of springtime.” While attempting to draw a purple iris with green leaves he became increasingly dissatisfied. When pressing too firmly, he could not stay within the lines.
Chapter 2 — Teenage years, John Travolta’s mom, and color
Teenage Years. John Travolta’s Mom. And Color. By the time he entered high school, Kelly was certain he wanted to become an artist.
Chapter 2 — Caricatures
At age 17, he was already exhibiting an artistic confidence.
Chapter 2 — American regionalism and Precisionist influence
Experimenting with various styles such as American Regionalism, some of Kelly’s high school artwork reflected the influence of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Other examples of his paintings were reminiscent of Precisionist artists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. Early Watercolor Explorations.
Chapter 2 — Early watercolor explorations and first painting
Early Watercolor Explorations. Willoughby Ave, Brooklyn, 1941. Supply Dump, Fort Meade, MD, 1943. Barn, 1955. His First Recorded Painting. Grain Elevator, Oradell, 1940.
Chapter 2 — Theater
As he continued honing his artistic skills in school, he also explored other creative expressions — such as acting. Kelly acting in a school performance of Our Town, 1941. His drama teacher happened to be Helen Travolta. She was a very encouraging mentor. One day in drama class, Kelly confidently delivered a piece from Hamlet. Helen was delighted and promptly declared: “We have an actor here in our midst.” Though Kelly’s own mother was an avid fan of theater, his parents refused his requests to attend drama school after graduation.
Chapter 2 — Pratt Institute
1941: Faced with Kelly’s insistence on attending either art school or drama school, his parents finally agreed to send him to Pratt Institute Brooklyn, New York: but only if he studied commercial art.
Chapter 2 — Munsell color charts and structural workbooks
At Pratt, he began to explore form and color more deeply. Munsell Color Charts and Structural Workbooks, 1942.
Chapter 2 — Color preferences
“It was the first time that I realized that I preferred all the spectrum colors in their strongest chroma position, and the strongest chroma color has guided my colors selections for all my works ever since.” Works created between 1963 and 2015.
Chapter 2 — Ghost Army (camouflage engineer battalion)
After he had completed just three semesters at Pratt, the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II fighting compelled Ellsworth to volunteer for service. In 1943, he was enlisted in a Camouflage Engineer Battalion. Later this unit became known as the Ghost Army. Their mission was to divert German forces away from the location of American troops by creating dummy artillery, painted inflatable jeeps and tanks, fake radio transmissions, and more military make-believes.
Chapter 2 — Abstracting nature through camouflage
One of Kelly's main tasks was to produce silkscreen posters for the American troops that illustrated the various camouflage techniques used for painting decoys. They chose me…because I immediately caught on: we were abstracting nature.” Kelly screen printing posters, Fort Meade, Maryland, 1943.
Chapter 2 — Sketches made during WWII
During this time on the front lines in Europe, Kelly’s decision about his post-war career shifted away from commercial art, as his parents had wanted. Kelly's Sketchbook #3, US Army in Germany, 1945. He knew he had to be his own kind of artist. Self-portrait, Paris, 1944.
Chapter 2 — Boston
After his discharge from the army in 1945, Kelly attempted to hitchhike from Florida to North Carolina, to attend Black Mountain College where he would have studied painting under Josef Albers. This road trip proved futile. Instead he took advantage of a free plane ride for GIs to New York.
Chapter 2 — Boston Museum School
Soon after, he enrolled in the Boston Museum School (now called The School of the Museum of Fine Arts).
Chapter 2 — Early self portraits
While there, he painted some of his most remarkable early self-portraits. Self-Portrait with Bugle, 1947. Self-Portrait with Thorn, 1947.
Chapter 2 — Ralph Coburn
He also exhibited his painting Boy in Tub, 1947 in his first group show at Boris Mirski Gallery in Boston where he met his lifelong friend Ralph Coburn.
Chapter 2 — GI Bill
Because his parents refused to support his career choice, Ellsworth’s college studies were made possible by the G.I. Bill of Rights which covered tuition fees and a monthly stipend. Giving veterans the opportunity to attend college, this bill would have far-reaching effects on America and on the arts. President Roosevelt signing the G.I. Bill into law on June 22, 1944. It supported not only Ellsworth Kelly but many of his peers, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Kenneth Noland and many more.
Chapter 2 — Influence of Max Beckmann
In particular, he was guided by Max Beckmann’s lecture to “not forget nature.” And by British art historian and critic Herbert Read’s declaration that easel painting was outdated and that a new collaboration between art and architecture should be pursued.
Chapter 3 — First works made in Paris
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.
Chapter 3 — Abstract paintings
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.
Chapter 3 — Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris
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.
Chapter 3 — Sketchbook pages
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.
Chapter 3 — Experimentation and exploratory works in France
“Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added.” 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.
Chapter 3 — First multi-panel work - Painting for a White Wall
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.
Chapter 3 — Exploratory abstract paintings
Window V, 1950. Gate-Board, 1950. Tennis Court, 1949.
Chapter 3 — First multi-panel paintings
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.
Chapter 3 — First solo show at Galerie Arnaud
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.
Chapter 3 — End of Stay in Paris
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.
Chapter 3 — Ad Reinhardt at Betty Parsons Gallery
“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.
Chapter 3 — Transporting artworks back to the US
His artwork made the journey separately, transported by a steamship company that was willing to ship on credit more than 95 of his paintings, reliefs, and sculptures made between 1949 and 1954.
Chapter 3 — Returning to New York
Broad Street New York. Kelly scarcely knew anyone when he arrived in New York City.
Chapter 3 — Broad Street studio
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.
Chapter 3 — Working nights for US Post Office
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.
Chapter 3 — First curvilinear forms
It was then that he painted his first curvilinear forms. Black Curves, 1955. Yellow Curves, 1954.
Chapter 3 — Alexander (Sandy) Calder
The well-known sculptor, Alexander Calder, was an early and influential advocate of Kelly's work. 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. Delphine Seyrig and Ellsworth Kelly with Alexander Calder, Roxbury, Connecticut, 1957. Letter from Alexander (Sandy) Calder, 1954.
Chapter 3 — Studio visits from museum directors
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.
Chapter 3 — First solo show in New York at Betty Parsons Gallery
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.
Chapter 3 — Studio in Coenties Slip (The Slip)
In July of 1956, Kelly moved to Coenties Slip, a three-block long stretch in lower Manhattan on the East River.
Chapter 3 — Fellow Slip artists
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.
Chapter 3 — Separation from Abstract Expressionism
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.
Chapter 3 — Foraging for materials
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...”.
Chapter 3 — First group show at MoMA: Recent Drawings U.S.A.
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. 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.”
Chapter 3 — Influence of 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 painting.”. Lower Manhattan, 1975. Study for York, 1958. Untitleв (Empire State Building), 1956. Beauty Contest, 1956. Columbus Circle, 1957. Seaweed (1), 1957.
Chapter 3 — Breaking Ground
When the Whitney Museum of American Art assembled the exhibit Young America 1957: 30 Artists Under 35.
Chapter 3 — Young Americans Exhibition at Whitney Museum of Art
It was Kelly's second group exhibition at a New York museum. There he showed Barge, Atlantic, and Painting in Three Panels.
Chapter 3 — First museum purchase: Whitney acquires Atlantic
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.
Chapter 3 — Sixteen Americans group exhibition at MoMA
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 4 — Public Recognition
In the late 1950s, public and institutional recognition of Ellsworth Kelly’s innovative approach to making abstract art began to soar. By 2000, his many major exhibitions, wide critical praise, impressive commissions and achievements would establish Kelly as an icon of American art.
Chapter 4 — First solo show at Galerie Maeght in Paris
First solo show at Galerie Maeght in Paris opens. Kelly continues to exhibit with Galerie Maeght throughout his career.
Chapter 4 — Sculpture for a Large Wall commission for Transportation building, Philadelphia
Completes a commissioned public artwork, titled Sculpture for a Large Wall, for the new Transportation Building in Philadelphia. In place until 1998, the sculpture is now on view in MoMA’s collection.
Chapter 4 — First free-standing sculptures
Creates his first freestanding sculpture: Gate & Pony.
Chapter 4 — First series of lithographs
Begins printing a series of 55 color and plant lithographs published by Maeght Éditeur in Paris.
Chapter 4 — Uniquely joined-panel paintings
Begins making uniquely joined-panel paintings in various shapes.
Chapter 4 — Cover of New York Times magazine
Kelly’s portrait appears on the October 12 cover of the New York Times Magazine alongside Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning — the “Four Leading Artists of the New York School.”
Chapter 4 — Move to Cady’s Hall studio in Chatham, New York
Moves from NYC to Spencertown, New York where he renovates an old farmhouse. In the nearby village of Chatham, he rents a defunct theater, Cady’s Hall, and transforms it into a studio. Chatham Series.
Chapter 4 — Printmaking partnership with Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, California
Begins printing lithographs with Sidney Felsen, Stanley Grinstein, and Kenneth Tyler of Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. Kelly continues to publish and exhibit with Gemini throughout his career. But his most significant printmaking collaboration began in 1970, with Los Angeles-based Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) and continued for 44 years. Yellow Black, 1970. Blue Red-Orange, 1970-72. Blue Red-Orange Green, 1970-71. Green Curve, 1970-71. Red Curves, 2012. Colored Paper Image V, 1976. Colored Paper Image V, 1976. Colored Paper Image XI, 1976. Colored Paper Image XV, 1976.
Chapter 4 — Travel to Saint Martin in the Caribbean
Kelly visits Saint Martin in the Caribbean for the first time. Inspired by the landscape, he returns regularly.
Chapter 4 — First biographical monographs published
Ellsworth Kelly: Drawings, Collages, Prints by Diane Waldman. Ellsworth Kelly by John Coplans.
Chapter 4 — First outdoor sculptures
Fabricates first large outdoor sculptures using weathering steel. Curve I, installed flush on the ground, is the first, followed by the free-standing Stele I.
Chapter 4 — Leo Castelli Gallery
First solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, opens: “Ellsworth Kelly: Curved Series.” Kelly continues to exhibit with Castelli until 1992.
Chapter 4 — Mid-career retrospective at MoMA
MoMA presents a mid-career retrospective of Kelly’s work, which travels to the Norton Simon Museum, the Walker Art Center, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Chapter 4 — Blum Helman Gallery
First solo show at Blum Helman Gallery, New York, opens. Kelly continues to exhibit with Blum Helman until 1993.
Chapter 4 — Sculpture fabrication with Peter Carlson Enterprises
Peter Carlson Enterprises begins to fabricate Kelly’s sculptures.
Chapter 4 — Builds studio in Spencertown, New York
Begins construction on his new studio adjacent to his Spencertown home, replicating his Chatham studio proportions at Cady’s Hall.
Chapter 4 — Meets Jack Shear
Meets photographer Jack Shear in Los Angeles. Jack would become Ellsworth’s life partner and husband.
Chapter 4 — Tallest sculpture, Creueta del Coll for Barcelona, Spain
Produces his tallest sculpture, a 49-foot high totem known as Cureueta del Coll, commissioned by and sited in the city of Barcelona.
Chapter 4 — Meets Richard H. Axsom
Meets prints scholar Richard H. Axsom, who will compile a two-volume catalogue raisonné of Kelly’s prints, covering the years 1945–2008.
Chapter 4 — First floor painting
Creates his first floor painting, Yellow Curve measuring 25½ feet at its widest, for a solo exhibition at Portikus, Frankfurt.
Chapter 4 — Meets Yve-Alain Bois
Meets art historian Yve-Alain Bois, who will author the multi-volume catalogue raisonné of Kelly’s paintings, sculptures, and reliefs (Vol I, 1940–1953, published 2015; Vol II, 1954–1958, published 2021; Vol III, 1959–1965 in progress).
Chapter 4 — Susan Sheehan Gallery
First solo exhibition of prints at Susan Sheehan Gallery, New York, which continues to show his prints to date.
Chapter 4 — Matthew Marks Gallery
First solo exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. The gallery remains the artist’s primary dealer and continues to exhibit Kelly’s artwork to date.
Chapter 4 — Retrospective at Guggenheim Museum, New York
“Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective” curated by Diane Waldman, opens at the Guggenheim Museum, New York and travels to MOCA, Los Angeles; Tate Gallery, London; and Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Chapter 4 — Meets Tricia Y. Paik
Meets art historian Tricia Y. Paik, who would write a comprehensive monograph on Kelly’s work, published just before his passing in 2015.
Chapter 4 — Line Form Color published
Line Form Color, the book project Kelly conceptualized in 1951 while in Paris, is finally published.
Chapter 4 — Tablet drawings acquired by the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
The Menil Collection, Houston, acquires and exhibits over 200 works on paper drawn from Kelly’s important set of Tablet sheets. Red Blue; Green Black; Black White. Portrait of a Man, 1650-1653. From Franz Hals’ “Portrait of a Man”, 1974. Black Panel II, 1985. White Panel II, 1985.
Chapter 4 — Documentary Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments
Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments, a documentary produced by Checkerboard Film Foundation premieres at Florence Gould Hall, New York.
Chapter 4 — Receives National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama
Kelly receives the 2012 National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony.
Chapter 4 — Austin commissioned by the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin
Commissioned by the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Kelly envisions his most monumental work: a 2,715-square-foot gray limestone building featuring multi-colored stained-glass windows titled Austin. Construction is completed in 2018.
Chapter 4 — Dies at age 92
December 27, 2015
Ellsworth Kelly dies at age 92 in his Spencertown home. His memorial service is held at MoMA.
Chapter 4 — The Ellsworth Kelly Foundation
Ellsworth Kelly cared deeply about the arts, historic preservation, environmental conservation, and education. He gave generously to these causes during his lifetime and his philanthropic initiatives have continued to flourish via the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.
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