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Ellsworth Kelly

American, 1923 - 2015

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Born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York, Ellsworth Kelly has been honored with many important exhibitions and retrospectives. He studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, from 1941 to 1943. After military service in World War II, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until 1947. The following year, the twenty-five-year-old artist moved to Paris, where he lived for six years before moving to New York in 1954.

Kelly's work underwent significant changes during this formative period, as he experimented with strategies that would prove to be instrumental to his artistic development. In Paris he abandoned figuration and easel painting, made his first shaped wood cutout canvases, embraced white monochrome and then primary colors, and developed the intensely felt abstraction for which he is known. Here he was also introduced to Surrealism and Neoplasticism.

Although Kelly's works do not appear at first glance to make any reference to reality, they are rooted in his close observation of the world. His desire to pursue elementary forms drawn from careful observation of his surroundings became ever more present after his first year in Paris in 1948-49, and can be seen in his renderings of plant forms as well as of the buildings and bridges of the city. Similarly, in his 1949 painting Tennis Court, he transforms the familiar outline of a tennis court by partially obscuring it with layers of paint and orienting it vertically so that it takes on an anthropomorphic quality. Although it is still markedly pictorial, it reflects Kelly's preference for the use of clear and strong compositional devices to structure his images.

In June of that year, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham visited his studio. This meeting, as well as Kelly's encounter with Jean (Hans) Arp's collages "arranged according to laws of chance" in February 1950, had a profound impact on the work of the young artist. Chance began to play an increasingly larger role in Kelly's works, such as 1950's November Painting, in which the artist cut up a discarded black and white drawing, dropped the pieces onto a board, and then glued them in place.

Inspired by the shape of the windows at the Musée d'Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art) in Paris, Kelly constructed a piece called Window at about the same time. His first painting made of several panels, Window initiated a series of reliefs including Cutout in Wood, an early example of Kelly's defiance of the traditional boundaries of art mediums. Although it hangs on a wall, Cutout in Wood is a totemic piece that has a three-dimensional, sculptural quality.

Both an element of chance and the close examination of reality lead Kelly to produce Window V, his first shaped canvas. This painting's form is taken directly from the projection of light from a street lamp shining through an irregularly shaped window onto a wall, traversed by shadows cast by telephone wires. In order to emphasize the autonomy of the piece as an object, the artist hung it from the ceiling with a string when he showed it in Paris in 1951.

Kelly continued to employ chance in the composition of his works, and at the same time started to use the grid-devices evident in his collages from 1951. He also visited Constantin Brancusi's studio, and was particularly drawn to the sculptor's abstract interpretations of observed reality, which have clear connections with his own work. In the painting Seine (1951) and the preparatory drawing for it, for example, he creates a tension between systematic and chance procedures in his abstract evocation of shifting light and shadow on the river surface.

Later in the 1950s, Kelly made an important shift from small object-like works toward larger-scale paintings like North River (1959) that command a wall and convey a strong sense of shifting space. The titles of these later works often reflect the artist's growing emphasis on the formal qualities of his compositions.

Ellsworth Kelly's work resonates with earlier painting and sculpture in the Museum's collection by artists he knew and admired. His playful use of the grid and black, white, and primary colors in his compositions recall those of Piet Mondrian, and his interest in chance connects to the work of Marcel Duchamp and Jean (Hans) Arp. The Museum's fine collection of Juan Gris paintings also has particular importance for Kelly, who once saw a number of Gris's small compositions hung together in a manner that suggested the possibility that a single painting might consist of several separate panels.

It is the remarkable artistic path that he embarked upon in the early stages of his career that now demonstrates why Ellsworth Kelly is considered one of the most eminent artists of our time.

Ellsworth Kelly: Paris/New York, 1949–1959, 2006

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