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Ellsworth Kelly
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Newburgh, New York
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Spencertown, N.Y.
Known for his abstract geometrical forms saturated with strong colors, Ellsworth Kelly paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have made him one of America’s foremost artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Born in 1923 in Newburgh, N.Y., his family soon moved to suburban New Jersey where he was educated in public schools. He studied at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute during 1941-42 until he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He served in the European Theater with a unit specializing in camouflage. After World War II he studied painting and drawing at the School of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts from 1946 to 1948, and then went to Paris where he enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts. He remained in France for six years, meeting such artists as Jean Arp (1886-1966), Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Alexander Calder (1898-1976), the American composer John Cage (1912-1992) and the dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). While in Paris, Kelly began exploring geometrical abstraction in his paintings, collages and wooden sculptures, while continuing to make figurative drawings of plants and flowers and making his first (unpublished) lithograph. He returned to New York City in 1954, living first in a studio apartment in lower Manhattan and then in 1956 moving to a loft in a building on Coenties Slip. That building became home to a community of artists, including Robert Indiana (b. 1928), Agnes Martin (1912-2004) and James Rosenquist (b. 1933). Kelly’s first public commission was a large sculpture for Philadelphia’s Transportation Building in 1956. His first solo exhibition in Manhattan took place at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1956, followed by another solo show there the following year and a one-man exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1958, for which he designed a lithographic poster. Kelly’s work first entered a museum collection in 1957 when the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased his 9-feet wide painting “Atlantic” (1956). His works were included in the Whitney’s Young America 1957 exhibition, the American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, the Whitney’s 1959 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting and the New York Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans exhibition (1959-60). His work was described as “hard-edge painting.” Kelly began exploring editioned printmaking with Tatyana Grosman (1904-1982) of Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island in 1964, and that year began work on two series of lithographs published by Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1965. Kelly’s lithograph Red Blue (Axson 2) was part of the portfolio Ten Works x Ten Painters published in 1964 by the Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum. His work was shown in the U.S. Pavilion at the 1966 Venice Bieniale and the 1968 Documenta in Kassel, Germany. In addition to prints and large paintings on canvas, Kelly created large geometric sculptures. In 1970 he began creating lithographs at the Gemini G.E.L. workshop in Los Angeles, which Kenneth Tyler (b. 1931) had started in 1965. Also that year Kelly moved from New York City to the hamlet of Spencertown, N.Y., east of the Hudson River about 25 miles south of Albany, with a studio in nearby Chatham. New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted Kelly’s first retrospective exhibition in 1973. In the early 1970s he began making large outdoor sculptures in a variety of metals. While continuing to create prints and editions of sculptures at Gemini in Los Angeles, Kelly also worked with Tyler in the printer’s new workshop in Bedford, N.Y. from 1976 through 1980, expanding beyond lithography to etchings and collage prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art featured Kelly’s paintings and sculptures in a solo exhibition in 1979. Among the many commissions Kelly has received over his long career are commissions for a mural for UNESCO in Paris (1969) and sculptures for Chicago (1981), Barcelona (1986) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (1993). The first retrospective exhibition of his prints traveled to eight American museums in 1987 and another exhibition of his drawings and other works on paper traveled to six museums in the U.S. and Canada during 1987 and 1988. Kelly continued to create paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, and exhibit widely in museums in the United States and Europe well into the 21st century. For example, a 2013 exhibition at The Phillips Collection, Washington, displayed his panel paintings from 2004-2009 and his dealer Matthew Marks mounted a show of Kelly’s new works in New York City in May 2015. Kelly was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Harvard University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Williams College, Bard College, the Pratt Institute and the Royal College of Art, London. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the French Legion of Honor and the Order of Arts and Letters, was an honorary member of Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts, and received the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 2013. He died in late 2015 at his home in Spencertown.(TNB 7/2014, 12/2015)