Ellsworth Kelly’s earliest works of art were created in service to the United States, as part of a special camouflage unit in France during World War II. Kelly and his fellow artist-soldiers were tasked with fooling the Germans—using rubber and wood to construct fake tanks and trucks—into thinking the multitudes of Allied troops on the battlefield were much larger than reality. While this seems an unconventional early training for an artist, it proved a fitting one for Kelly.
“He was able to understand that there were these realities that for most of us are camouflaged,” says Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “He would evoke those realities—a distinct feel of gravity, or the physics of weight and momentum that we rarely think about in tangible terms. He was able to get that across.”
“In Paris in the late 1940s, I started making my first reliefs,” Kelly told actress Gwyneth Paltrow in a 2011 interview. “I wanted to do something coming out of the wall, almost like a collage. I did a lot of white reliefs when I started because I liked antique reliefs, really old stuff.”
After his service, Kelly enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and returned to Paris in 1948, absorbing an array of influences, including Picasso and Matisse, Asian art and Romanesque churches. He came back to the United States and presented his first solo show in 1956. Three years after that, Kelly’s work was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) 16 Americans exhibition. His geometric abstract works, along with those of other American painters including Ad Reinhardt and Brice Marden, was dubbed “hard-edge painting” by art historian Jules Langsner in 1959.
After being abroad for six years, Kelly decided to return to America in 1954. He had become interested after reading a review of an Ad Reinhardt exhibit, an artist whose work he felt his work related to. Upon his return to New York, he found the art world “very tough.” Although Kelly is now considered an essential innovator and contributor to the American art movement, it was hard for many to find the connection between Kelly’s art and the dominant stylistic trends. In May 1956 Kelly had his first New York City exhibition at Betty Parsons’ gallery. His art was considered more European than was popular in New York at the time. He showed again at her gallery in the fall of 1957. Three of his pieces: Atlantic, Bar, and Painting in Three Panels, were selected for and shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibit, “Young America 1957”. His pieces were considered radically different from the other twenty-nine artists’ works. Painting in Three Panels, for example, was particularly noted; at the time critics questioned his creating a work from three canvases. For instance, Michael Plante has said that, more often than not, Kelly’s multiple-panel pieces were cramped because of installation restrictions, which reduced the interaction between the pieces and the architecture of the room.
Kelly eventually moved away from Coenties Slip, where he had sometimes shared a studio with fellow artist and friend Agnes Martin, to the ninth floor of the high-rise studio/co-op Hotel des Artistes at 27 West 67th Street.
In 1959, MoMA included his work in the landmark exhibition 16 Americans.
“Ellsworth was a wonderful example of how to function as an artist,” Frank Stella, whose infamous Black Paintings were first shown in 16 Americans, recalled during a 2013 panel I attended (Benjamin Sutton) in honor of Kelly’s 90th birthday.
“To see Frank’s pictures made me feel like I was doing OK,” Kelly said at the 2013 panel. “I told Dorothy [Miller, curator of 16 Americans], ‘I have to talk to this guy.’” Stella and Kelly had been friends ever since.
Throughout the 1960s, he carved out his own niche separate from the New York City and Paris art worlds. Mecklenburg says what she finds remarkable about his work was the way he pared down the architecture, images, and other visuals he saw in the world and in art, turning them into direct, visceral abstractions. Using basic colors—blue, green, white, black—and single canvases (later moving into multiple canvases and sculpture) he created statements that were “less descriptive than evocative,” as she puts it.
“They take time to look at, but once you step back, you realize you are looking at something you have seen over and over again,” says Mecklenburg, giving the example of the 1961 painting “Blue on White” on exhibit in the American Art Museum, which she says evokes a leaf unfurling. “All of a sudden you begin to understand that if you dissociate narrative ideas, how strong the visual impulse is in every human being.”
He showed at the Venice Biennale in 1966 (and would show at three more in subsequent years), had his first American retrospective at MoMA in 1973, and his first major European retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam six years after that.
“Ellsworth Kelly made the transition from postwar geometric abstraction to the Minimalist movement that began in the early 1970s,” says Valerie Fletcher, senior curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which possesses 22 of Kelly’s works, including “White Relief over Dark Blue” from 2002, on view in the museum’s third floor, and an untitled 1986 sculpture displayed in the garden. “If you look at his paintings compared to others in his generation, they are far simpler.”
Some of these works take on a “totemic” quality, as Mecklenburg describes it, pointing to “Memorial,” his wall sculpture of four white panels at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “How do you talk about something of that magnitude?” she asks. “There are either a million words or no words, and he chose no words.”
His simple, geometric approach had an impact on the next generation of Minimalists—Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and others—with works that explored the essence of ideas or emotions in tangible and tactile ways.
“He had a huge impact on the art world, but the work speaks in a visceral way to whoever looks at it,” adds Mecklenburg. “I have to say there is a sense of joy and a sense of energy to so much of his work. You sort of come back to the center when you look at it.”
- Smithsonian Magazine, Why Ellsworth Kelly Was A Giant In The World Of American Art, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-ellsworth-kelly-was-giant-world-american-art-180957652/#M09vfhpIGTmQY2QF.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
- ArtNews, Ahead of the Curve, Lily Wei, 09/13/11, http://www.artnews.com/2011/09/13/ahead-of-the-curve/
- Hyperallergic, Ellsworth Kelly, Who Relentlessly Pushed the Boundaries of Abstraction, Dead at 92, Benjamin Sutton, http://hyperallergic.com/264539/ellsworth-kelly-who-relentlessly-pushed-the-boundaries-of-abstraction-dead-at-92/
- wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellsworth_Kelly