Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923)
Date of Birth: May 21, 1923
Place of birth: Newburgh, New York
Occupation: Painter, Sculptor
Movement: Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Monochrome Painting; Hard-Edge Painting
Ellsworth Kelly is an American artist most associated with the minimalist and abstract style of Hard-
Edge and Color Field painting.
The artist was one of three brothers born to Allan Howe Kelly and Florence Bithens Kelly in
Newburgh, New York, in 1923. Shortly after his birth, Kelly’s family moved to New Jersey. The Kelly
family moved a lot, moving house almost every year in the New Jersey and Hackensack area. While
living in the town of Oradell, Kelly’s grandmother initiated him at a young age into bird watching.
This helped the artist train his eye and cultivate an appreciation for the natural world and physical
beauty. Kelly has a passion for color and form. He drew inspiration from American naturalist artists
such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes and John James Audubon who influenced his work throughout his life.
During his childhood, Kelly was left by himself a lot, and therefore became somewhat of a loner. In
his boyhood, he attended a public school that emphasized artistic imagination. Although not fully
supported by his parents, he sustained his interest in art through the encouragement of teachers. As his
parents would only fund a technical education Kelly enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, which
he attended till 1941, when he was inducted in the army for military service during the war.
Military Service and Studies Post War
During World War II Kelly served with other artists in a unit called the Ghost Army. These Ghost
soldiers used inflatable tanks, trucks, and other basics of maneuvers to mislead the Axis forces and
mask the actual direction and placement of Allied forces. During this time he had a lot of exposure to
military camouflage and this experience later influenced his art aesthetic. Kelly served with the unit
from 1943 till the end of the European phase of the war.
Through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, Kelly studied for two years at the School of the Museum
of Fine Arts in Boston, and went on to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Although he hardly ever attended class in Paris, he engrossed himself with the rich artistic history of
the city. It was in Paris that he met Swiss sculptor-painter Alberto Giacometti and Belgian abstract
sculptor-painter Georges Vantongerloo among others and it was here that he refined his art esthetic.
Return to America
Kelly returned to America in 1954. He found it hard to gain a foothold into the art world in his home
country after having spent so many years abroad. But he held his first exhibition in New York at the
Betty Parson’s Gallery in 1956. Kelly’s work was more European in style than the dominant artistic
trends in America at the time. In 1970 Kelly moved to Spencertown, where he continues to live till
Career in Art
During his time in Paris, Kelly predominantly painted figures. In 1949 he made his first abstract
painting which was inspired by how light seemed to disappear when it touched the surface of the
water. He painted the “Seine” in 1950. Kelly discovered Monet’s late works in 1952, and this inspired
a certain freedom in his own artistic style. He veered towards abstract form and in the 1960s, started
working on irregularly shaped canvases. He subsequently transformed the canvas to become a form of
art in itself.
His childhood spent in nature always influenced his art and he drew many drawings of flora. His plant
studies are mostly contour drawings of leaves, stems and flowers done in smooth strokes of pen or
pencil, centered on the page. Kelly produced numerous lithographs such as the “Purple/Red/Gray/
Orange” (1988), which may be the largest single sheet lithograph ever made.
Although better known for his painting, Kelly has made many sculptures. He started by looking at the
juxtaposition of two simple forms, layered one on top of the other. But only after 1973 did he start
making large outdoor sculptures, which tend to have a totemic quality. Some of these pieces measure
up to 15 feet.
Kelly’s style is inward-oriented and he strives for perfection with subtle yet powerful strokes. He
currently lives in Spencertown, New York, in a house that he shares with his partner, the photographer
Works exhibited at:
• Tate Modern, London
• Centre Pompidou, Paris
• San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
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