Ellsworth Kelly
Biography of American Abstract Artist, Pioneer of Hard Edge Painting.
MAIN A-Z INDEX - A-Z of ARTISTS

Pin it



Yellow over Dark Blue (1965)
Tate Modern, London. A wonderful
example of Ellsworth Kelly's
twentieth century painting.

Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923)

Contents

Biography
Early Life and Training
Artist in Paris
Matisse and Paper Cutouts
Hard-Edge Painting
Lithography and Op Art
Sculpture

For other modernists, see: 20th-Century Painters.



The Meschers (1951)
Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Biography

An important figure in American art, the painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly was an important practitioner of abstract art in the aftermath of World War II. Together with Kenneth Noland (b.1924) and Frank Stella (b.1936), he is considered to be one of the leaders of the generation of American painters that succeeded the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, except that his development differs markedly from the others because, from the beginning, he rejected the influence of US abstract expressionist painting and turned directly to a personal re-examination of European, and especially French, sources of postmodernist art. He was especially inspired by Matisse, and by the sculptors Brancusi and Jean Arp. Returning to America, his individual style had a significant impact on the development of Minimal art, Systemic Painting, Hard-edge Painting, Frank Stella's Shaped Canvas genre, and Greenberg's so-called Post-painterly Abstraction, without him actually becoming a 'member' of any of these movements. Today he is regarded as one of the most influential postmodern artists of the 1960s, in both abstract painting and sculpture.

Early Life and Training

Kelly studied first at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (1941-43), then joined the army, during which time he paid a short but inspirational visit to Paris. After being discharged from the army (1945), he studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School with Carl Zerbe from 1946 to 1948. An early influence on his painting at this time was the Spanish genius Picasso. Then in 1948, supported by a US education grant under the G.I. Bill, he returned to Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris (1948-54).

Artist in Paris

In Paris Kelly continued to do figure drawing from life, but at the same time he became fascinated with Byzantine art and began to experiment with pure colour in complex abstract spatial relationships through the use of collage. A friend of Jean Arp and his wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp, he was included in the Salons des Realites Nouvelles and also showed at the Galerie Maeght. His first one-man show was in Paris in 1951 at the Galerie Arnaud. In addition, he encountered the activities of the Surrealism movement, notably its use of automatism in art, illustrated by techniques like automatic drawing. His cultural circle also included the choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) and the composer John Cage (1912-92) - later to become influential in the Neo-Dada and Fluxus movements - as well as the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), the great Romanian modernist Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) (whose simplification of natural forms had a lasting influence on Kelly), and the American inventor of mobiles and stabiles Alexander Calder (1898-1976). Other influential artists whom he met included Joan Miro (1893-1983), Francis Picabia (1900-55) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66).

Matisse and Paper Cutouts

During these years Kelly was also deeply interested in Matisse, and especially in Matisse's contour line and intense colour. Kelly was one of the few American artists at this time to understand the importance of Matisse's paper cutouts, and to examine the relationship of abstract pattern to the effects of nature, including the structure of leaves and stems and the change in shadows falling across the open pages of a book. He was also fascinated by Parisian architecture and by the interplay of light and shadow over its stone surfaces, using it to inform his abstract paintings. The importance he placed on this use of observed reality underscores the difference between his work and that of other American abstract painters like Josef Albers (1888-1976) and Ad Reinhardt (1913-67).

Hard-Edge Painting

Returning to the United States in 1955, Kelly began exhibiting regularly at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. He became identified as a leading proponent of what was then called hard-edge painting, because of his consistent emphasis on flat forms defined by sharply graded contours. Kelly balanced his interest in contour - often manifest in black-and-white paintings such as Pole (1951) or Rebound (1959) - with monochrome, but brilliantly coloured, canvases where slight alterations in the size of the stretchers caused the canvas literally to project into space. These slightly bulging works, with soft, subtle shadows, became the base for the artist's investigation of sculpture. In the black-and-white paintings especially, the meticulous and immaculate surface of the canvas forced an utter confounding of traditional figure-ground relationships. In yet other coloured works, the juxtaposition of one painted panel against a series of similar size but different hues, produced unexpected effects of slight projection or recession, depending as much on scale as placement. In Kelly's work, including the painted aluminium sculpture he started to make in 1959, the smallest variation becomes impressively dramatic, and usually disturbing and challenging. His ability to achieve complex effects with parently simple means made him a principal influence on the following generation of American artists, the so-called 'Minimalists'.

Lithography and Op Art

Inspired by his earlier interest in the drawing of plant forms, triggered at the time by the biomorphic abstraction of Arp and Matisse, Kelly took a serious interest in lithography during the mid-1960s, when he produced a Suite of Twenty-Seven Lithographs (1964–66) with Maeght Editeur in Paris. He also created his first series of plant lithographs, marking the beginning of a body of work that would grow to 72 prints and hundreds of both pencil drawings and pen-and-ink drawings of foliage.

By the late 1950s/early 1960s Kelly had built up an international reputation in non-objective art. In his painting, he produced a spate of De Stijl type works reminiscent of Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), and for a short time in the mid-1960s, he explored the edges of Op Art in his use of geometric layouts and colour contrasts that investigated perceptual ambiguities. Whether intended or not, his work of this period offered a useful stepping stone between American concrete art of the 1940s and the Minimalism of the mid-1960s and 1970s, and, as a result, influenced several of today's top contemporary artists.

Sculpture

Despite being best known as a painter, Kelly worked at sculpture throughout his career. During the late-50s he made sculptures such as Wave Relief I (1959, Private Collection), sometimes using cut out flat forms silhouetted against interior walls. He was also a keen exponent of wood carving: one of his first works, Concorde Relief I (1958), a wall relief in elm, exploits the visual play between two rectangular forms layered one on top of the other.

In 1970 Kelly quit New York City to live upstate. As his address changed, so did his art. In his painting he moved away from rectilinear geometry and began again to use curves, perhaps out of respect for his new rural surroundings: see, for instance, Blue Curve III (1972; Los Angeles County Museum of Art). In his sculpture he began constructing large-scale outdoor works, sometimes in totem-like shapes: see, for example, Curve XXIII (1981; Yale University Art Gallery). Uninterested in colour, he preferred convenient, easy to maintain materials like aluminium, stainless steel and later bronze.

Paintings, sculptures and colour lithographs by Ellsworth Kelly can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.

 

• For more details of abstraction in painting, see: Homepage.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF VISUAL ARTISTS
© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.