The renowned abstract painter and sculptor, Ellsworth Kelly, passed away on December 27th from natural causes at the age of 92, leaving behind a legacy of extraordinary colour, form and innovation.
Kelly’s death was announced by his gallerist Matthew Marks of the Matthew Mark’s Gallery in Manhattan, who was informed of Kelly’s passing by the artist’s partner of 32 years Jack Shear. Marks described Kelly as “a real American original,” while New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz named him a “cosmic geographer.”
One of America’s great 20th Century artists, Kelly was best known for his large scale paintings that spanned several movements including Color Field, Minimalism and Hard Edge painting. He is also credited with bridging the gap between European and American Modernism, with his works combining the solid shapes of abstract expressionism with forms taken from everyday life.
Kelly was born in New York in 1923, and served in the US military during the Second World War. Afterwards he enrolled in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and from 1948 onwards he spent several years in France on the G.I. Bill (also known as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act). His first solo show was at the Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre in Paris in 1951, before returning to New York in 1954.
Kelly initially chose to inhabit what was then an out-of-the-way section of Manhattan for art, the Financial District, meaning he had little contact with his contemporaries. The result was his deeply personal and experimental style, which opened up previously unexplored elements within the genre that would inspire generations to come. His diverse range of influences included Picasso and Matisse, as well as his time as a camouflage designer in the US Army and the automatic drawing exercises favored by the surrealists.
While primarily known as a painter, Kelly was also a prolific sculptor. During his career he created public commissions around the world, including the monument for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. For the past two years the artist had also been working with the Blanton Museum of Art to create a chapel in Austin, Texas, which according to Shear will “allow visitors the opportunity literally to walk into an Ellsworth Kelly: a space of abstraction and light.” The project will now be completed posthumously, and is the only freestanding building that Kelly has ever designed.
Kelly lived and worked in Spencer Town for four decades until his death on 28th December. Towards the end of his life he was reliant on an oxygen tank, which he believed was the result of exposure to turpentine and other paint thinners. In November 2015, he told the Observer he hoped to live another 15 years, although he knew it was unlikely, and he kept working right up until the end: “I give what I’ve got. It’s harder. I can’t work on really big pictures anymore, so the ideas are blocked a bit. But then, the visions were always too much. “I feel like the world is over there, and it keeps coming at me, and I want to do it, respond to it.”
– Sophie Lloyd for The Untitled Magazine