Ellsworth Kelly

American, 1923-2015

"I didn’t want to compose pictures, I wanted to find them.” –Ellsworth Kelly1

Ellsworth Kelly was an American painter, sculptor and printmaker best known for his intensely hued geometric abstractions—paintings, often in monochrome, and sometimes on shaped canvases, based on his keen observations of everyday life. Important forebears of minimal art of the 1960s, Kelly’s spare geometric sculptures and shaped canvases differ from minimalism in important ways, suggesting realms beyond their limits.  The simplified shapes that make up Kelly’s visual vocabulary were culled from a variety of commonplace objects, revealing his fascination with form and interest in the relationship between shape, ground and space. The jagged edge of a wild grape leaf, the gentle curve of a lily pad, a shadow cast in an alleyway or the silhouette of a window—these sights, distilled and decontextualized, are the content of Kelly’s work.

Kelly made sculptures throughout his career, and their planar characteristics align them closely with the object-like nature of his paintings. Untitled (1986) at The Nasher Sculpture Center exemplifies Kelly’s unique approach to abstraction. Its slender form, both architectural and organic, is a positive representation of negative space: Untitled traces the arcs of two gargantuan imaginary circles beside one another, making manifest a portion of the space between them. Cast in bronze, the freestanding work seamlessly meets the ground, appearing to defy gravity with its weight and stature.  

Kelly was born in Newbergh, New York. He studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After service in World War II, he used the GI Bill to study in Paris, where he created his first mature work by drawing of the example of European abstraction, particularly, the streamlined forms of Constantin Brancusi, the chance processes of Jean Arp, and the tranquil abstractions of Sophie Taeuber-Arp. After his return to the US in 1954, Kelly became part of burgeoning art world in New York, where he lived and worked for many years before relocating to Spencertown in upstate New York. Kelly’s prodigious career and finely tuned approach to abstraction have been the subject of major exhibitions in the United States and abroad including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


Additional Resources

Bois, Yve-Alain, ed. Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Reliefs, and Sculpture, Volume One, 1940-1953.  Paris:  Cahiers d’art, 2015.

Ellsworth Kelly. The Years in France, 1948-54, exhibition catalogue (ed. by Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Cowart, Alfred Pacquement, and Yve-Alain Bois), National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 1992.

Waldman, Diane. Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996.



1Holland Carter, “A Giant of the New Surveys His Rich Past,” New York Times, October 13, 1996.


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