Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly was born May 31, 1923, in Newburgh, New York. With his family, he first moved to Pittsburgh and, in 1929, to Oradell, New Jersey. After finishing school, he enrolled at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, in 1941. In 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. military and was stationed in Europe from 1944 until the end of the war. Under the G.I. Bill, Kelly studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he received classical training in painting and drawing as a student of Karl Zerbe, whose work draws on Expressionism. He graduated in 1948. Kelly regularly visited the New York museums and, in 1948, his work was shown as part of a group exhibition. In the same year, Kelly went to Paris and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, again on the G.I. Bill. Kelly remained in France until 1954, eventually working at the American school in Paris. He knew the Paris museums, spent time traveling in France, became interested in Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, and became an admirer of Monet. Among the artists he met in Paris were Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Francis Picabia, Hand Arp, and John Cage. Kelly also came to know the silk manufacturer Gustav Zumsteg for whom he soon started to do pattern drawings.

During his time in Paris, Kelly turned towards more abstract artistic forms. He created first works with white shape on black surface (Plant I, 1949), based on biomorphous shapes, but also collages, lithographies, and a first relief (Window III). With Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, Kelly did his first Multipanel paintings. His work is characterized by specific pictorial approaches that are quite distinct from Color Field Painting and Abstract Expressionism in the U.S. and are much more influenced by approaches taken in modern European painting. In basic ways, Kelly focused on the »concept of the picture, on the pictorial in general« and also on the »order of artistic genres and forms of expression« (Boehm, Kelly 2002).

With his methods and techniques, Kelly tried to subvert the boundaries drawn between painting and relief or sculpture as well as the boundaries between all three genres: At first, he created collages based on the principle of randomness. Experimental drawings done blindfolded followed in the early 1950s. He also did drawings of randomly shaped found objects as well as experiments with the automized application of ink. Always crossing the boundaries of or positioning itself between genres, Kelly’s work at the same time infringed upon the difference between figurative and abstract art. He drew on already existent forms and colors, transformed what he found: the outlines, the shapes and structures of the visible world. The question of the transformational process and the decision for a specific material, a color, or a format in/of the picture became the central aspects of his art. The relation to the real world of objects – to things, to architecture, to what has been found – remained part of the artistic process. While still in Paris, Kelly showed his early works at the »Salon des Réalités Nouvelles.« The La-Combe series (1950) and Colors for a Large Wall (1951), the latter consisting of 64 formerly monochrome panels, are further works that were done in Paris.

From 1951 on, Kelly’s works mostly consisted of single panels or canvases and, starting in the mid-1950s, were without outlines, strongly relying on black-and-white contrasts. They are based on plane shapes that are monochrome, of unmodeled color. Through his creation of specific, monochrome shapes, Kelly achieved two-dimensional as well as spatial effects and explored the relation between figure and ground. »I have wanted to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it (…) the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness« (Kelly 1983, qtd. in: Artist’s Choice,1990). These works led to Kelly’s well-known paintings consisting of several monochrome panels arranged in a row or grouped into geometrical forms. They include the wall as a negative space or a space inbetween. In 1955, first curving arrangements were shown.

Through Kelly’s New York gallery, but also through the group exhibition »Young America,« his works started to draw broad attention, and some of his works were acquired by museums. In New York Kelly now also did drawings of plants, a motif that has remained important for his work until today. Moreover, he created a series of wood reliefs. In New York, Kelly met Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and worked on his first freestanding aluminum sculptures (Pony, 1959). He kept returning to Europe, traveling to Ravenna and Padua, to Amsterdam, and to Barcelona where he concentrated on architectural history. In the 1960s, he turned away from the scheme of the picture (Yellow Piece, 1966) and moved away from principles of composition. He changed the relation of figure and ground and dissolved the »dynamics of the pictorial structure« (Boehm, ibid.). In the 1970s, Kelly started to create pictures that sometimes included wall and floor, for example, the Wall/FloorPieces (Blue Red, 1966), or that turn into a wall themselves (Color Panels for Large Wall, 1978). Increasingly, Kelly also did large-format sculptures in public space, for example, the commissioned work Curve XXVI from 1981, installed in Chicago, or The Barcelona Sculpture (1987), installed in Barcelona. Like their small-format predecessors from the late 1950s, they are to be understood as color shapes detached from the wall.

Since the late 1940s, Kelly’s works have been shown at numerous exhibitions. His first exhibition was at the Mirski Art Gallery, New York (1948), a later show took place at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1957). His first solo exhibition at a museum was at the Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, D.C. (1963). Retrospectives of his work were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1973) and, among other locations, at the Haus der Kunst, Munich (1996). In 2002, the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, followed with a show of his works from 1956 — 2002. Important group exhibitions took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (»Young America,« 1957) and at the Centre George Pompidou, Paris (»Henri Matisse, Ellsworth Kelly. Dessins de plantes,« 2002). In 1968, 1977, and 1991, Kelly participated in the Documenta and, in 1991, in the Whitney Biennale, New York.

Since 1970, Ellsworth Kelly has lived and worked in Spencertown, upstate New York.

Selected Literature

Ellsworth Kelly: Zwischen-Räume, Werke 1956 — 2002: Ausst.-Kat. Fondation Beyeler, Ostfildern 2002

Ellsworth Kelly: Ausst.-Kat. u.a. Haus der Kunst, München 1997

Ellsworth Kelly. Die Jahre in Frankreich 1948 — 1954: Ausst.-Kat. Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster 1992

Boehm, G.: Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Curve, Stuttgart 1992

Ellsworth Kelly, Gemälde u. Skulpturen 1966 — 1979: Ausst.-Kat. Staatl. Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Baden-Baden 1980

Bildrechte: VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2014 Foto: Tobias Roch, Hagen Bildrechte: gemeinfrei, Foto: Peter Hinschläger Bildrechte: Calder Foundation New York / Foto Stiftung Lehmbruck Museum

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