For Ellsworth Kelly’s 90th birthday in May 2013, the Museum of Modern Art honored him at its annual Party in the Garden and celebrated his art with a dazzling exhibition of his Chatham Series. In the Sculpture Garden women arrived in dresses patterned after Kelly paintings, and the grand old man of American painting made his way through the admiring crowd. Upstairs on the fourth floor, the Chatham show, the first suite of paintings Kelly had made after leaving New York City in 1970 for Spencertown, in upstate New York, was seen for the first time since 1972. Recalling a concept of painting on joined panels that the artist had developed in Paris in the early 1950s, each of the 14 pieces was in the form of an inverted “L” made of two joined canvases, each a monochrome of a different color. The series as a whole was a beguiling invitation to look and look and look, thrilling every minute more to one’s range of sensory response.
When the artist died on Dec. 27, 2015, at the age of 92, the Modern could be proud and grateful for that night. But for anyone who loved the art of the century past, at whose heart lay the triumph of abstraction, it was also a day of true mourning. Ellsworth Kelly had been one of its supreme, and most original, proponents.
Born in 1923 in Newburgh, N.Y., as a child he became an avid bird watcher and forever after based even his most abstract work—in paintings, sculpture, drawing and prints—on close observation of the world around him. After graduating from high school he moved to Brooklyn, where he briefly studied at the Pratt Institute. Drafted into the army in 1943 and discharged in 1945, he enrolled for two years at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston under the G. I. Bill, which also enabled him in 1948 to move to Paris, where he remained for the next six years—and where he found himself artistically.
Though an elegant draftsman, as his famous drawings of plants and flowers attest, his principal vocabulary became one of strongly defined forms or panels, juxtaposed in unmodulated color. Within his work the distinction between figure and ground disappeared, while the object itself is presented without any frame, directly on a wall that becomes, if one will, itself a ground. Often he made collages of colored paper, using chance as a compositional principle, and then refined the results intuitively with pencil drawings.
Among his unforgettable early works is “The Meschers” (1951), a blue-green evocation of seaside experience that can be analyzed into five tall vertical panels. The small rectangular panel of “Seine” (1951) vitally conveys the dance of light on water. His “Colors for a Large Wall” (1951) has the purity of color and dynamism of Mondrian but also an entirely different sensibility, feeling somehow closer to us, visually even more demanding but also less sovereign, more expansive, less self-contained.
When Kelly returned to New York from Paris in 1954, he settled in lower Manhattan on Coenties Slip, a neighborhood that welcomed other young artists, like Jasper Johns and Agnes Martin. Recognition came slowly for Kelly, but in 1957 the Whitney bought his stirring “Atlantic.” His “Sculpture for a Large Wall” was commissioned that year. And in 1959 he was included in the ground-breaking “Sixteen Americans” show at the Modern. He also began to make free-standing sculptures, the wittiest early example being “Pony” (1959)—at Agnes Martin’s suggestion, a tin can top crinkled into the suggestion of a child’s rocking horse, painted bright yellow above and bright red beneath.
After moving to the Hôtel des Artistes on the Upper West Side in 1963 and then to Spencertown in 1970, Kelly had his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1973. In these years he was often linked and in fact confused with representatives of Hard Edge and Color Field painting, Op as well as Minimalism. That his journey predated most of them and had another destination is clear from a piece like “Blue Curve III” (1972), a marvelous rotated parallelogram in the form of a broadened diamond, in which a blue curve seems to grow as one looks at it, disengaging from a smaller white triangular shape above it and yet lending the white a magical shimmer.
In the 1970s he became increasingly interested in the use of materials like wood, bronze and weathering steel. From each he crafted slender totemic pieces that at once recall Brancusi and take a stand of their own. Still more compelling and mysterious were several folded bronze wall pieces from the late 1980s, the most beautiful of which, “Untitled (Mandorla)” (1988), evokes fruit and welcome and womb—and ultimately the Romanesque tympanums in which the risen Christ reigns supreme (as in a chaste early oil of 1949). He also returned to the joined, multi-panel works of earlier years.
The year 1996 was a triumphant one for Kelly, with a monumental retrospective opening at the Guggenheim Museum and then traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Tate in London and the Haus der Kunst in Munich. At the Guggenheim, five great panel variations on the theme of the curve in brilliant green, black, red, blue and yellow held court in the High Gallery off the first ramp. Of the panels Simon Schama wrote in his now-famous review in The New Yorker, “Together they appear about ready to lose their moorings from the Guggenheim walls and drift off out of the museum and over Central Park.”
The work, and the honors, continued, including widely admired public commissions for the Tokyo International Forum in 1997, Boston’s new Moakley U.S. Courthouse in 1998, the courtyard of the Phillips Collection in 2005 and the “Barnes Totem” at the relocated Barnes Foundation in 2012.
Kelly’s work abstracted from visual experience only to return us to it. His painting always sought an objectivity that could capture our attention on its own terms, from his original insistence on pure form and color to his experiments in scale to his austere and imposing series of sculptures. The 20th-century artists he most admired, Brancusi and Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso, also tell us much about his artistic ideals. For if the former became distinctively abstractionist, the latter never crossed that line.
The works that he insisted were objects in their own right continue to echo forms we have all glimpsed less searchingly: sweeping fans and swelling hillsides, signs and semaphores and sails, totems and towers. In a way that recalled Georges Bracque, he was as classical and indebted to tradition as he was contemporary and innovative, joining the grand dignity of Romanesque churches and Byzantine frescoes with the fragmented fields of modern experience.
“I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity,” Kelly said, “a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living.” But for that one must risk contemplation, finding the time and space to share his clear vision. And if one does? Kelly’s pilgrimage amounts to a promise. “In a sense, what I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.”
And so he did.