Ellsworth Kelly, who began his influential 70-year career with exciting advances in abstract painting which he would continue to explore and perfect, with rigor and spirit, for decades, died yesterday at the age of 92. Matthew Marks, the dealer who represented the artist in New York, confirmed his death, which was first reported in the New York Times.
Kelly’s accomplishments are enormous. He was one of a handful of artists, emerging in the years following World War II, who defined the art of the last half-century, and with his death, this exciting chapter in the history of art unfortunately begins to end.
With expressive abstraction booming in the late 1940s in Europe and the United States, Kelly took a radically different path, creating works that were daringly understated, with decisive lines and solid colors – never a wasted gesture. Although carefully planned, they feel loose, natural and elegantly comfortable.
He was looking for ideas on what to paint and draw. “The shapes found in a cathedral vault or in a plane of asphalt on a pavement seemed more precious and instructive, a more sensuous experience than geometric painting,” he said. “Rather than making an image that would be the interpretation of something I saw or the representation of an invented content, I found an object and presented it ‘as is’. ”
A few key early works reveal the extent of his invention during these years: Window, Museum of Art, Paris (1949), which is a deadpan, life-size painting on wood of precisely that – nothing but thick, straight black lines and rectangles, gray and white; Seine (1951), which depicts a flowing river with just small black squares on a white canvas that he commissioned according to a system supported by chance; and Colors for a large wall (1951), composed of 96 individual squares, equally distributed at random.
Kelly has been seen as a successor to the hard abstraction of various avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, as a precursor to the minimalists of the 1960s, or even as a dissident compatriot of the abstract expressionists of the 1950s, but as for so many great arts, his comprehensive oeuvre defies categorization. “My work is about structure,” he wrote in 1969. “It was never a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. I first saw the Abstract Expressionists in 1954. My line of influence was the “structure” of things I loved: French Romanesque architecture, Byzantine, Egyptian and Oriental art, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, Klee, Picasso, Beckman. »
“Things that I liked.” This sentence seems essential. Kelly’s art is deeply humanistic and deeply immersed in the world. It is about soaking up the visual pleasure of buildings, bodies, plants and animals. Its soothing curves, sharp lines and expanses of color welcome the gaze and invite allusions. When asked to explain what he communicates in his works, he once said, “It’s about perception, feeling it somehow.”
Kelly was born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York, along the Hudson River, about 90 minutes north of the city by train. He grew up in Oradell, about 10 miles from Manhattan, then a fairly rural area of New Jersey. As a child, he loved birdwatching. “My grandmother gave me a book about birds and I learned to love their colors,” Kelly told Gwyneth Paltrow in 2011. “I said, ‘Jesus, a little red-winged blackbird. It was one of the first birds I saw in the pine behind my house, and I followed it as it flew into one of the trees – like it was leading me. Somehow this little bird seems to be responsible for all my paintings.
After high school, Kelly went to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for three semesters, then enlisted in the war in Europe, joining the Army’s 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. After the war, he enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston but found the training too traditional, and therefore left for Paris, with which he fell in love, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. “I didn’t go to Paris to go to school,” he told Rachel Cooke in the Observer, of London, earlier this year. “I just wanted to look around and see some paintings. The Beaux-Arts was the only place that didn’t care about attendance. I painted the nude that brought me in, then the tutor never saw me again. Instead, he soaked up the culture, visited artists — like Brancusi and Calder, who once helped pay his rent — and experimented, delving deeper into abstraction. .
A walk along the Seine in Paris inspired the canvas of the same name, whose shimmering surface foreshadowed the Op art that artists like Bridget Riley would propagate a few years later. “Every night when I got home I would walk down the outer dock and see the lights of the bridges over the water,” he told Jason Farago in the Guardian earlier this year. “I just stood there and looked at these reflections, and I thought, I want to do something that looks like this. But I don’t want to do a pointillist painting. I said, I want to do something that shimmers. He handed out randomize the squares on a grid by drawing numbers from a box, adding one for each column as it nears the center of the artwork.
While living outside of Paris for a summer around this time, Kelly saw a film of Jacques Cousteau swimming underwater. “The whole audience was like, ‘Woo, ahh,’ and I was like, ‘Why don’t they do this to my paintings?’ “, he said with a laugh in a recent video interview with Andrew M. Goldstein for Artspace magazine. “I want them to pass out.” Soon he will regularly offer completely abstract paintings and works on paper – seemingly simple shapes radiating pure splashes of color, like Orange-red reliefcomposed of two rectangular panels, one of each color (since 1959 it has been in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum) or V-spectrumwith thirteen panels in a range of colors (from 1969 and owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Kelly moved to New York in the mid-1950s, joining a downtown Manhattan band that included Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
As his success grew, he began producing large-scale, site-specific pieces, as in the glorious 64-foot-long, 104-panel Sculpture for a large wall that he made for the new Transportation Building in Philadelphia (dated 1956-1957, it is now held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York); Color panels for a large wall, 18 brightly colored panels he designed for the Central Trust Company of Cincinnati, Ohio (1978, National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC); a large untitled work for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York; and the five gargantuan verticals Dartmouth Panels (2012) that now adorn the exterior of the Hood Museum at this university in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Kelly’s work proves that abstraction, even in its most reductive forms, can approach specific problems with nuance and grace. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. holds a four-panel white work titled Memorial (1993–95). In Zero point (2003), he proposed covering this site with grass, creating a tender collage – a green quadrilateral on top of a New York Times aerial photo of the ruins.
Many of Kelly’s best paintings confidently but quietly exude a kind and gentle humor. They can recall the curves of elbows, knees, buttocks, flower petals. “I want my paintings to be in a certain way voluptuous, to a certain extent – and the bodies are certainly very voluptuous,” he said. From time to time, touches of spirit throb, like the two flashing orange eyebrows that adorn Gold with orange highlights (2013), which appeared on Kelly’s penultimate Marks show, “At Ninety”, in 2013.
The list of major personal exhibitions of the artist is long. The MoMA, the Met, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the NGA, the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the Guggenheim and the Detroit Institute of Arts are among the institutions that have hosted exhibitions – complete retrospectives, as well as targeted exhibitions. surveys of his works on paper, his prints, the metal sculptures he began to make later in his career, and the tender and intimate drawings of plants he made throughout his career. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will reopen after renovations this spring with a Kelly show.
His work is present in many public collections. The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin is currently working on a non-denominational chapel designed by Kelly, which is expected to open next year. He survived, according to the Timesby her husband, Jack Shear, who runs the non-profit Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, and a brother, David.
In the 2011 interview with Paltrow, Kelly said he was an atheist, but if he believed in anything, it would be “nature.” What is that.”
“You are a pantheist then,” she said.
“Yes,” he continued. “I want to paint in a way that the trees grow, the leaves come out – how things happen.”
“I think this land is enough,” Kelly later said. “It’s so fantastic. Look at the sun. It is millions of years old and it will be millions more. And there are all the spaces that we will never be able to see. He recounted how he became an atheist and continued, “Who wants heaven? I want another 10 or 15 years of being here. At 90, you have to accept it. It’s been my life. That’s what it was. I put everything I could into it. »