Obituary: Ellsworth Kelly, painter and sculptor

Ellsworth Kelly, famed abstract artist inspired by Matisse and Picasso. Picture: Getty Images

Ellsworth Kelly, famed abstract artist inspired by Matisse and Picasso. Picture: Getty Images

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Born: 31 May, 1923, in Newburgh, New York. Died: 27 December, 2015, in Spencertown, New York, aged 92.

Ellsworth Kelly was an acclaimed American abstract painter and sculptor widely regarded as one of the giants of the post-war US art scene, ­specialising in hard-edge and colour field painting expressed on large canvasses.

Described as “a true American original”, he was known for paintings that featured geometric shapes and bright colours as well as spectacular, publicly commissioned, sculptures made of steel, aluminium and bronze for cities including Barcelona, Berlin and Washington DC.

Influenced by the avant-garde movement, in 1991, Kelly reflected, “I think if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately every­thing becomes abstract.”

Known internationally as a master of geometric abstraction, the doyen of crisp, hard-edge shapes and vivid colours, Kelly’s admiration for the likes of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are apparent in his pieces; their work inspired him to train himself to view things in a variety of ways and create in different mediums, while Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian influenced the forms he used in both his paintings and sculptures.

Born in Newburgh, New York in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly was the second of three boys to his father, Allan, who worked for the US Army at West Point before going into insurance, and his mother, Florence Githens, a school teacher. He grew up in New Jersey near a reservoir, where he spent much of his time alone, often encouraged by his grandmother, watching birds and insects; these observations would later inform his unique way of creating and looking at art. After graduating from high school, he studied technical art and design at the Pratt Institute from 1941-42, and his parents agreed to support his art career on the proviso he pursued his technical training. In 1943, he enlisted into the army, briefly training with mountain ski troops in Colorado before being transferred and serving in the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion; he then joined other artists and designers in a deception unit called “The Ghost Army” with a mission to misdirect enemy soldiers with inflatable tanks. He was posted to Europe shortly after D-Day, serving in England, Belgium, France and Germany.

Demobbed, Kelly attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1946-8), which was paid for under the GI Bill, a law providing free education for returning war veterans. In 1949, he went to France and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, although he attended classes infrequently. He did, however, explore the collections of the Louvre and the Musée Guimet and discover Romanesque art and architecture as well as Byzantine art; he was also introduced to Surrealism and Neo-Plasticism, which led him to experiment with automatic drawing and geometric abstraction. Over his six years in Paris, he met fellow-Americans John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Alexander Calder and luminaries, such as the French Surrealist artist Jean Arp, Spanish painter and sculptor, Joan Miró, and the Romanian abstract sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. Kelly returned to the US in 1954, and settled in New York. While away he had missed the entire development of abstract expressionism with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Working nights at a post office to support himself, Kelly worked during the day on his art and establishing contact with dealers and artists, including James Rosenquist, Jack Youngerman and Agnes Martin. His first US solo exhibition was in 1956 at the avant-garde Betty Parsons Gallery.

In 1959, Kelly was part of the major exhibition Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA), New York, alongside Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. In 1958, he also began to make freestanding sculptures.

Slowly Kelly’s fame spread but it was not until the 1960s, with the rise of pop and minimalism, did his bold colour and immaculate form win the attention it deserved. Later commissions for public spaces led him to create powerful compositions for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC (1993), and, in 1998, for the Deutscher Bundestag (Parliament) in Berlin, Tokyo International Forum, Boston’s federal courthouse and the Chicago’s Art 
Institute.

Among his many awards, Kelly was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1993 and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2002. In 2013, he received the US National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama.

He is survived by his husband, photographer Jack Shear, and a brother, David.

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