Ellsworth Kelly died December 27th at the end of last year at the age of 92. He was the grandfather of Minimalism and of so much "hard edge" abstraction in the last half of the 20th century. And yet, his work was so different in spirit from the abstraction that came after him. Minimalism with its machine made polished surfaces was the last 20th century movement to positively embrace the machine aesthetic. Kelly's work no matter how abstract it became, found its initial inspiration in nature. Kelly was less interested in cool cars than he was in birds and plants. He had an early passion for ornithology. The first artist that he ever admired was John James Audubon.
All his life, he was a painfully shy man who spoke with a stutter. Another reason for his withdrawal was homosexuality which he did not publicly acknowledge until late in his life. When he died, he left behind a partner, the photographer Jack Shear, who he met in 1984.
Kelly made this self portrait two years after his military service in World War II. He was initially assigned to a mountain ski patrol, but later transferred to a camouflage unit that made many of the dummy tanks and guns used to fool German reconnaissance before the D-day invasion.
Ellsworth Kelly was born in Newburgh New York about 60 miles north of New York City to middle class parents. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother was a school teacher. When he was still a young boy, his family moved to Oradell, New Jersey. His paternal grandmother took Kelly birdwatching around the Oradell Reservoir when he was about 8 or 9 years old.
Ellsworth Kelly's parents were not at all pleased to see their son develop an early interest in art. However, a local teacher encouraged his emerging talent. His father reluctantly allowed his son to study at the Pratt Institute. From there Kelly was drafted into the army in 1943.
Kelly studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School on the GI Bill after his return from the War. In 1947, he began 6 years residence in France where he became personally acquainted with a lot of the pioneers of early modernism, especially with Hans Arp and with Constantin Brancusi who would both have a decisive influence on Kelly's work. From Hans Arp's small random wooden sculptures Kelly acquired a fascination with the relation between shape and color, and an early inspiration for paintings on shaped canvases that he would develop over 25 years later.
From Brancusi, Kelly learned simplifying things into their most essential shapes, but especially Kelly learned from Brancusi how to use shape and materials together in ways that were poetic without necessarily being narrative or imagery. Kelly did not share Brancusi's interest in spirituality or Theosophy.
When Kelly returned to the USA in 1953 and began working in a studio in New York, he produced paintings that were sharply different from the dramatic painterly expressive brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists who dominated everything at the time.
Kelly's works were very smooth surfaced clear contour paintings of large simple shapes in black and white without gradation, or in unmixed bright colors. Sometimes those shapes were very simple geometric shapes, sometimes not. Kelly minimized the brushwork that meant so much to the Abstract Expressionists, to point of total self-effacement.
Painting for a Large Wall, 1953
Blue and White, 1962
Color in Kelly's work appears to me to remain rooted in nature. His blues recall the sky. His reds, greens, and yellows call to mind everything from flowers to feathers. His colors are very different from the rich industrial surfaces in Minimalism that deliberately evoke the finishes on cars in the work of artists such as DeWain Valentine. Kelly's colors, though rich and bright, are very different from the brilliant saturated colors of American commercialism that inspired the works of such different artists as Willem DeKooning, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. I hears somewhere on the radio from someone who knew Kelly personally that he mixed new colors for each painting, that the reds, yellows, greens, blues, etc. were never the same from painting to painting.
Throughout his career, Kelly made beautifully simple and elegant contour drawings of plants that inspires (directly or indirectly) the shapes and colors in his work.
Ellsworth Kelly's shaped canvases and sculptures transformed their settings into extensions of his compositions; a very reductivist modern aesthetic version of Baroque art's very un-reductive project to blur the line between the work of art and its surroundings.
It is hard to look at a shape like this and not think of certain natural forms that perhaps inspired it. See the following drawing by Kelly:
This remains a very popular work in the Metropolitan Museum, especially with children.
Kelly was among the best and the most accessible of the old hard-edged and minimalist abstract artists who dominated the last half of the 20th century. His work neither instructed nor preached. There was no agenda of aesthetic End Times in his work, no claims about History being somehow fulfilled and Destiny reached. The end of art history and the Perfect Aesthetic is no closer to us now than the Workers' Paradise or the Kingdom of the Saints. Kelly's work makes no claims, which part of why its appeal has lasted while other paragons of destiny in their day are barely remembered.
An entire generation of artists who came of age in the wake of Abstract Expressionism is dying, among them, some of my old professors. George Ortman, under whom I studied in 1982 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, died last year.
The problem with reductivism was that it was ultimately a cul-de-sac. In terms of reduction to the most basic of basic forms, no one outdid Kazimir Malevich's 1913 White on White or Olga Rozanova's 1917 Green Stripe. How far can you count backwards from one? By the end of the 20th century, younger artists either abandoned the reductivist aesthetic in droves, or completely remade it to serve very different ends.
Perhaps no one will ever again make such basic abstraction as poetic or congenial as did Ellsworth Kelly.