As the year 2015 entered the period of festive idleness that inevitably precedes New Year’s Eve, the announcement came that Ellsworth Kelly, one of the most influential artists of the previous century, had passed at his home in Spencertown, N.Y., where he had lived since 1970. Though 92 years old, Kelly’s health had been sound till recently, if you allow for the oxygen mask he was forced to wear in his old age as a consequence of the excessive amounts of turpentine he’d inhaled in his earlier years in his studio. Prolific, inventive and admirably energetic, Kelly’s devotion to his work had had the better of his lungs but it would never temper the rate at which he churned new works, active as he was right down to the end of his life—his final exhibition of all-new works coming in the summer of 2015, just over six months prior to his death.
Born in 1923 in upstate New York to a working-class family, Kelly was famously influenced by his time in the Army, where he served in the engineers camouflage battalion between 1943 and 1945, before heading out to Paris—where he had been briefly as a soldier during the war—on the G.I. Bill in 1948. In no minor measure Kelly’s exceptional form of artistic expression finds its root in the reverse journey upon which he embarked from this point forward: while much of the art of the second half of the XX century is shaped by the influence of so many European artists who chose to resettle in the USA, Kelly marked his personal exploration by traveling in the opposite direction, eastward, and developing his vision in Paris, the former (but by then displaced) capital of Western art.
It is important to remember that Paris in 1948 was not the “gay Paree” of the years leading up to the war. This was a city ravished by the Nazi occupation and fully caught in the dire privations of the postwar period. This was the Paris of Robert Doisneau and Edith Piaf, a place not devoid of charm but a gray version of it, with destitute Parisians playing the accordion in every other corner and hunger trumping opulence more often than not. It might not come as a surprise, then, that Kelly, who would go on to become the champion and liberator of sheer color, began experimenting in the late forties and early fifties in Paris with black and white compositions. By 1950 Kelly had been acquainted with Jean Arp’s random method of composition, which in 1951 resulted in Kelly’s geometrical interpretation of the twinkling ripples of the River Seine in a painting which he completed using a system that determined through chance which color would be ascribed to each segment.
Moving away from figuration, and from the influence of colossal—larger than life, almost—characters such as Picasso, Kelly was able to work out for himself a version of abstraction that differed drastically from the emotional Abstract Expressionism that was revolutionizing the world of art on the other side of the Atlantic. For the rest of his time in France he experimented not only with systems of composition but he also expanded his field of play to formats and color. The 1951 series Line Form Color produced small monochromatic works in yellow (just yellow) red, blue—the sort of pieces that when exhibited in a museum of modern art often elicit the scorn of skeptical viewers who might claim their seven-year-old child could draw something like that.
The beauty of Kelly’s abstraction lies precisely in the marriage of complex concepts and procedures into a simple and aesthetically pleasing work of art. The brutal truth is that no one’s seven-year-old child could paint anything similar to Kelly’s solid shapes of color because intention matters. The process through which Kelly arrives at a solid bright red square is diametrically opposite to that of a child’s, overriding the basic principles of understanding (those which a child is still developing) in order to free his work of anything other than absolute (and later maximized) perception. Indeed, Kelly might have found in someone likening his work to that of a seven-year-old child’s proof that his system was actually working, that his purge was complete.
Utterly modern and surprisingly original as Kelly’s work was, though, he remained a truly old-fashioned artist, almost refreshingly so, in a milieu where intellectual tenets and outrageous conceptual claims seem to have gained far more relevance than the work of art itself. From the early fifties to the mid-teens of the following century, Kelly produced thousands of pieces which at their core—once they’re stripped of context or explanation—are purely concerned with beauty, with the beauty they conjure up with their presence and the joy they inspire in the viewer who is presented with, touched by, them. Which is of course not to say that Kelly’s paintings are merely accomplished decorative pieces. There is a lot to be gained from scratching beneath the surface of these grand, striking, monumental works, but the rare fact remains that even if looked at in isolation and by themselves, Kelly’s compositions are still outstandingly pretty.
Kelly’s artistic evolution took him from color to shape to size. By the time he left Paris in 1954, at the age of thirty and having spent more than six years in the French capital, he was already experimenting with perfectly defined shapes—squares, rectangles and lines mainly, but also sharp curved shapes—in bright, dense, solid colors: all the elements that would dominate his professional life. Back in New York, Kelly continued to work with larger formats, stretching a single piece over several panels. In 1956 he held his first solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, the following year the Whitney Museum purchased one of his works, and in 1959 he was included in the Sixteen Artists exhibition organized by the MoMA.
Kelly, who also worked in several other media from drawing to sculpture, began exploring the possibilities not only of the painting itself but also of the format that held the painting. Thus, he experimented with oddly shaped canvases and ultimately also with curved ones. This allowed him to further emphasize the status of his works as real objects in themselves rather than mere representations of something real. This had partly been the idea behind his clear-cut shapes, figures so sharply defined that they almost jumped out of the canvas, and this too remained the concept he would explore later on as he placed one monochromatic canvas over another, quite literally a large red rectangle over a large white square protruding out of the wall and forming an almost-two-dimensional sculpture of sorts.
Kelly’s reputation grew steadily over the 1960s, taking part in Documenta in 1963 and 1968, and exhibiting his work in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1966. In 1970 he moved from Manhattan to Spencertown, where he would live for the rest of his life, and in 1973, now in the books of the hugely influential art dealer Leo Castelli, the MoMA held the first retrospective of his work. From that point forward all sorts of awards, exhibitions and other forms of recognition followed, from the French Legion d’Honneur to the National Medal of Arts conferred to him by President Obama in 2013. Kelly had arrived.
His painting had also reached a stage of maturity that allowed him to comfortably keep on pushing the boundaries of his own very distinctive creation without having to travel a different path. To his credit Kelly carried on doing precisely this, producing new work, to the end of his life. I visited an exhibition of his new creations in 2006 in London, and while the surprise spectators might have felt in, say, 1966, wasn’t there anymore—though new, it was all rather familiar—the essence of his art was still intact, the sharp shapes vivid and playful, the bright colors beautiful and bold, the juxtaposition of canvases inviting, reflective, simply inspirational. Because if Kelly’s years of groundbreaking artistic exploration date back to the fifties and sixties, the discoveries he made transcend time. Ellsworth-Kelly-the-man might have left us on December 27 2015, but his work will remain not only relevant but radical for many decades to come.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday January 21 2016.