Ellsworth Kelly Life and Art Periods

"I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges and mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness."

ELLSWORTH KELLY SYNOPSIS

Ellsworth Kelly has been a widely influential force in the post-war art world. He first rose to critical acclaim in the 1950s with his bright, multi-paneled and largely monochromatic canvases. Maintaining a persistent focus on the dynamic relationships between shape, form and color, Kelly was one of the first artists to create irregularly shaped canvases. His subsequent layered reliefs, flat sculptures, and line drawings further challenged viewers' conceptions of space. While not adhering to any one artistic movement, Kelly vitally influenced the development of Minimalism, Hard-edge painting, Color Field, and Pop art.

ELLSWORTH KELLY KEY IDEAS

Kelly intends for viewers to experience his artwork with instinctive, physical responses to the work's structure, color, and surrounding space rather than with contextual or interpretive analysis. He encourages a kind of silent encounter, or bodily participation by the viewer with the artwork, chiefly by presenting bold and contrasting colors free of gestural brushstrokes or recognizable imagery, panels protruding gracefully from the wall, and irregular forms inhabiting space as confidently as the viewer before them.
Real-life observations are the backbone of Kelly's abstraction works, which are replications of the shapes, shadows, and other visual sensations he experiences in the world around him. As did the early twentieth century Dadaists, Kelly delights in the spontaneous, the casual, and the ephemeral means of finding such "readymade" subjects.
The subtle fluctuation between the meditative, decorative and industrial in much of Kelly's work can be traced in part to this design training in art school. In this sense, Kelly continues Henri Matisse's lyrical and decorative ideal of creating an art of visual serenity, even as the painted motif is now reduced to its simplest and sometimes most mysterious configuration. The special camouflage unit of which Kelly was a part during his service in World War II, and the principles of visual scrambling he undertook, has also contributed greatly to Kelly's intense visual motifs.
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ELLSWORTH KELLY BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Born in Newburgh, New York in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly was the second of three boys. He grew up in northern New Jersey, where he spent much of his time alone, often watching birds and insects. These observations of nature 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 1941-1942. His parents, an insurance company executive and a teacher, were practical and supported his art career only if he pursued this technical training. In 1943, Kelly enlisted in the army and joined the camouflage unit called "the Ghost Army," which had among its members many artists and designers. The unit's task was to misdirect enemy soldiers with inflatable tanks. While in the army, Kelly served in France, England and Germany, including a brief stay in Paris. His visual experiences with camouflage and shadows, as well as his short time in Paris strongly impacted Kelly's aesthetic and future career path.

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Early Training

After his army discharge in 1945, Kelly studied at the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts School for two years, where his work was largely figurative and classical. In 1948, with support from the G.I. Bill, he returned to Paris and began a six-year stay. Abstract Expressionism was taking shape in the U.S., but Kelly's physical distance allowed him to develop his style away from its dominating influence. He enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, saying at that point, "I wasn't interested in abstraction at all. I was interested in Picasso, in the Renaissance." Romanesque and Byzantine art appealed to him, as did the Surrealist method of automatic drawing and the concept of art dictated by chance.

While absorbing the work of these many movements and artists, Kelly has said, "I was deciding what I didn't want in a painting, and just kept throwing things out - like marks, lines and the painted edge." During a visit to the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris, he paid more attention to the museum's windows than to the art on display. Directly inspired by this observation, he created his own version of these windows. After that point, he has said, "Painting as I had known it was finished for me. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw, became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added." This view shaped what would become Kelly's overarching artistic perspective throughout his career, and his way of transforming what he saw in reality into the abstracted content, form, and colors of his art.

Mature Period

Ellsworth Kelly Biography

After being well received within the Paris art world, Kelly left for New York in 1954, at the height of Abstract Expressionism. While his work markedly differed from that of his New York colleagues, he said, "By the time I got to New York I felt like I was already through with gesture. I wanted something more subdued, less conscious.. I didn't want my personality in it. The space I was interested in was not the surface of the painting, but the space between you and the painting." Although his work was not a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, Kelly did find inspiration in the large scale of the Abstract Expressionist works and continued creating ever-larger paintings and sculptures.

In New York City, while creating canvases with precise blocks of solid color, he lived in a community with such artists as James Rosenquist, Jack Youngerman, and Agnes Martin. The Betty Parsons Gallery gave Kelly his first solo show in 1956. In 1959, he was part of the Museum of Modern Art's major Sixteen Americans exhibition, alongside Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg.

His rectangular panels gave way to unconventionally shaped canvases, painted in bold, monochromatic colors. At the same time, Kelly was making sculptures comprised of flat shapes and bright color. His sculptures were largely two-dimensional and shallow, more so than his paintings. Conversely, in the paintings he was experimenting with relief. During the 1960s, Kelly began printmaking as well. Throughout his career, frequent subjects for his lithographs and drawings have been simple, lined renditions of plants, leaves and flowers. In these works, as with his abstracted paintings, Kelly placed primary importance in form and shape.

Late Period

In 1970, Kelly moved to upstate New York, where he continues to reside and work today. Over the next two decades, he made use of his bigger studio space by creating even larger multi-panel works and outdoor steel, aluminum and bronze sculptures. He also adopted more curved forms in both canvas shapes and areas of precisely painted color. In addition to creating totemic sculptures, Kelly began making publicly commissioned artwork, including a sculpture for the city of Barcelona in 1978 and an installation for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1993. He continues to make new paintings, sculptures, drawings and lithographs, even re-visiting older collages and drawings and turning them into new works. The more recent creations have expanded his use of relief and layering, while continuing to utilize brightly colored, abstracted shapes. Kelly is currently represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City.

ELLSWORTH KELLY LEGACY

Ellsworth Kelly Photo

When Kelly returned to the United States from Paris in 1954, he joined a new wave of American painters coming of age in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, many wishing to turn away from the New York School's preoccupation with inner, ego-based psychological expression toward a new mode of working with broad fields of color, the empirical observation of nature, and the referencing of everyday life. Kelly was increasingly influential during the early 1960s and 1970s among his own circle, including Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, and James Rosenquist. He also provided an example of abstract, scaled-down visual reflection to evolving Minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Richard Serra. More recently, Donald Sultan's schematic, abstract still lives of fruit, flowers, and other everyday subjects clearly owe a debt to Kelly's example, as does the work of many graphic designers of the postwar period.

Original content written by Rachel Gershman
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ELLSWORTH KELLY QUOTES

"The form of my painting is the content. My work is made of single or multiple panels: rectangle, curved or square. I am less interested in marks on the panels than the "presence" of the panels themselves. In "Red, Yellow, Blue," the square panels present color. It was made to exist forever in the present; it is an idea and can be repeated anytime in the future."

"I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract."

"I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long-to hang on the walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures-they should be the wall."

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly Influences

Interactive chart with Ellsworth Kelly's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Cézanne
Paul Klee
Paul Klee
The Swiss-born painter Paul Klee worked in a variety of styles, including Expressionism, geometric abstraction, and collage. His most famous works have a mystical quality and make use of linear and pictorial symbols.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Klee
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian artist working in Paris, was one of the founders of modern sculpture. His abstracted animals, portrait busts, and totem-like figures revolutionized the traditional relationship between the sculpture and its base.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constantin Brancusi
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.

Modern Art Information Hans Arp
Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin was a Canadian-born American painter, typically associated with Minimalism and at times Abstract Expressionism. Always something of a recluse, Martin's art was informed by Eastern Taoist philosophy and contained elements of spirituality. Her painting style employed simple lines, grid patterns and soft colors.

Modern Art Information Agnes Martin
James Rosenquist
James Rosenquist
James Rosenquist is an American Pop artist whose paintings feature fragments of faces, cars, consumer goods, and other items in bizarre juxtapositions. With their realist rendering and attention to surface textures, his works take up the visual language of advertising and entertainment.

Modern Art Information James Rosenquist
Jack Youngerman
Jack Youngerman
Jack Youngerman is an American abstract artist who studied in Paris and was part of the New York art scene from the mid-1950s onwards. His geometric and brushy abstractions and his shaped canvases share much with the hard-edge painting style.

Modern Art Information Jack Youngerman
Romanesque Art
Romanesque Art
Romanesque Art refers to medieval art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, before the rise of the Gothic. Commonly depicting Christian scenes and symbols, Romanesque Art shows the marks of Roman, Byzantine, and Northern European influence.

Modern Art Information Romanesque Art
Byzantine Art
Byzantine Art
Byzantine Art is a broad category that covers work made within the Byzantine Empire, from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. Mosaics, icons, and panel paintings frequently include hieratic depictions of Christian figures and symbols, and make use of a flattened, elongated style.

Modern Art Information Byzantine Art
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Neo-Plasticism
Neo-Plasticism
Neo-Plasticism was the guiding philosophy behind the art of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and many of his peers in the De Stijl circle. Articulated by Mondrian in 1917-18, the approach stipulates the strict use of only horizontal and vertical lines; the primary colors red, yellow, and blue; and white, gray, and black.

Modern Art Information Neo-Plasticism
Robert Indiana
Robert Indiana
Robert Indiana is an American sculptor associated with the Pop art movement. His art typically consists of simple, iconic imagery and one-syllable words, such as 'HUG,' 'EAT,' and 'LOVE.' These works have been referred to "sculptural poems."

Modern Art Information Robert Indiana
Richard Serra
Richard Serra
Richard Serra is an American Process and Minimalist artist. His sculptures have ranged from hurled drips of molten lead to gigantic steel pieces installed in public places.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Richard Serra
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin
Dan Flavin was an American artist best known for his Minimalist constructions of color and light. Often using nothing more than a few dozen fluorescent bulbs for his work, Flavin was a crucial figure in the Minimalism of the 1960s and '70s. His light installations altered the physical exhibition space, and were designed as experiential art rather than visual art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dan Flavin
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was an American painter and a pioneer of the Pop art movement. His signature reproductions of comic book imagery eventually redefined how the art world viewed high vs. lowbrow art. Lichtenstein employed a unique form of painting called the Benday dot technique, in which small, closely-knit dots of paint were applied to form a much larger image.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Roy Lichtenstein
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Painterly Abstraction
Hard-edge Painting
Hard-edge Painting
Hard-edge painting, emerging in the 1950s and '60s, departed from the gesture and scrawl of Abstract Expressionism to favor blocks of color with well-defined edges.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hard-edge Painting
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dada
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Henri Matisse
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Renaissance
Renaissance
In the Renaissance, artists rediscovered techniques like rational space, three-point perspective, and plastic forms. Paintings frequently emphasized the human figure, allegory, classical mythology, and Christian themes.

Modern Art Information Renaissance
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jasper Johns
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frank Stella
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Rauschenberg
Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre is an American Minimalist whose prominence rose in the late 1960s with a series of large public artworks and sculpture. His linear sculpture was included in the famed 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Carl Andre
Donald Sultan
Donald Sultan
Donald Sultan is a contemporary American artist, educated at the University of North Carolina and Art Institute of Chicago. Sultan is best known for his pseudo-abstract, still-life paintings of flowers which display bold contrasts of bright colors and negative space, creating a silhouette-type imagery. Sultan's paintings are included in nearly every major museum collection in New York City.

Modern Art Information Donald Sultan
Colors for a Large Wall
Colors for a Large Wall

Title: Colors for a Large Wall (1951)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The large-scale Colors for a Large Wall is one of Kelly's early forays into multi-panel paintings, a fundamental motif throughout his career. Colors for a Large Wall helped introduce his deeply held view of paintings as objects; not only was this painting an object in itself, but it was comprised of many smaller objects (panels) supposedly having come together in chance collision. In this work, Kelly covered each of the 64 square canvases in a single color and fused them together based on a collage study he had arbitrarily arranged. Much of Kelly's subsequent work stemmed from this painting, as he continued to juxtapose panels of differing sizes, shapes, colors and materials in innumerable variations.


Oil on canvas, mounted on 64 joined panels. Dimensions: 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 inches. Photo by courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly - The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist, 1969

Cite
Cite

Title: Cite (1951)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In Paris, artists such as John Cage and Hans Arp encouraged Kelly to experiment with the idea of chance in his artwork. For Cite, Kelly cut a black and white brushstroke drawing into twenty squares and randomly rearranged the pieces. He then turned this composition upside down and painted it onto twenty wood panels. After rearranging it once more, he connected the panels into the final painting. Although his artistic decisions ultimately dictate the final composition, Kelly's use of chance partially disconnects him from the resulting work. Such efforts to reduce the artist's emotions, influence, or individual marks have been important facets of Kelly's artwork, suggesting that all apparently "controlled" creativity is always partly a matter of an artist's making the most of chance collisions with unexpected and impersonal forces.


Oil on wood, twenty joined panels. Dimensions: 58 1/2 x 70 3/4 inches. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection

Red Blue Green
Red Blue Green

Title: Red Blue Green (1963)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Kelly put great emphasis on the tensions between the 'figure' and the 'ground' in his paintings, aiming to establish dynamism within otherwise flat surfaces. In Red Blue Green, part of his crucial series exploring this motif, Kelly's sharply delineated, bold red and blue shapes both contrast and resonate with the solid green background, taking natural forms as inspiration. The relationship between the two balanced forms and the surrounding color anticipates the powerful depth that defined Kelly's later relief paintings. Therefore, these works serve an important bridge connecting his flat, multi-panel paintings to his sculptural, layered works.


Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 83 5/8 x 135 7/8 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly - The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jack M. Farris

Black over Blue
Black over Blue

Title: Black over Blue (1963)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Upon returning to New York after six influential years in Paris, Kelly progressed beyond his multiple-panel paintings to reliefs. Black over Blue, first exhibited in the Betty Parsons Gallery, reflects his recurring interest in both layered works and non-traditionally shaped canvases. His paintings are often hung away from the wall, giving them a three-dimensional, sculptural quality. In fact, the painting's interaction with the wall was a strong focus for Kelly. In Black over Blue, the curved, black panel extends beyond the confines of the rectangular blue canvas, making the surrounding wall an essential part of the composition. Wall, artwork, and space itself become nearly equally important aspects of the viewer's experience, finally leading to a heightened awareness of one's own body as a similar, energized "gesture" in the same architectural setting.


Painted aluminum. Dimensions: 81 3/4 x 64 x 7 inches. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection

Creueta del Coll
Creueta del Coll

Title: Creueta del Coll (1987)

Artwork Description & Analysis: During the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by his move to the pastoral upstate New York, Kelly began expanding his use of the curve and making large, totem-like sculptures - many designed to be displayed outdoors. The 12-foot tall, slightly curving Creueta del Coll reflects both of these important new directions in his work.Kelly created a highly abstracted version of a specific, recognizable form - in this case, an ancient Greek statuary form known as kouros, or male youth. Like many of Kelly's sculptures, this one and a half inch-thick piece painted matte-black is very flat and has a two-dimensional quality. He encouraged his viewers to question traditional perspectives by creating sculptural paintings that might sit on the floor and flat sculptures that lean against a wall.


Weathering steel. Dimensions: 390 x 330 x 5 1/4 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly - City of Barcelona, Spain

Red Diagonal
Red Diagonal

Title: Red Diagonal (2007)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the 1990s, Kelly further developed the possibilities of the relief and continues expanding on this motif today. Red Diagonal employs a striking, geometric construction that echoes the forms created by his earlier panels attached side-by-side. At the same time, these layered pieces extend away from the wall, cutting into the viewer's space. His careful placement of the overlapping canvases creates precise, yet varying shapes in both the positive and negative space.


Oil on canvas, two joined panels. Dimensions: 84 1/4 x 109 3/8 x 2 5/8 inches. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly - The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Donna and Howard Stone Collection

Colors for a Large Wall

Colors for a Large Wall, 1951, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist, 1969
Oil on canvas, mounted on 64 joined panels. Dimensions: 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 inches. Photo by courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly

The large-scale Colors for a Large Wall is one of Kelly's early forays into multi-panel paintings, a fundamental motif throughout his career. Colors for a Large Wall helped introduce his deeply held view of paintings as objects; not only was this painting an object in itself, but it was comprised of many smaller objects (panels) supposedly having come together in chance collision. In this work, Kelly covered each of the 64 square canvases in a single color and fused them together based on a collage study he had arbitrarily arranged. Much of Kelly's subsequent work stemmed from this painting, as he continued to juxtapose panels of differing sizes, shapes, colors and materials in innumerable variations.
Cite

Cite, 1951, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection
Oil on wood, twenty joined panels. Dimensions: 58 1/2 x 70 3/4 inches. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly

In Paris, artists such as John Cage and Hans Arp encouraged Kelly to experiment with the idea of chance in his artwork. For Cite, Kelly cut a black and white brushstroke drawing into twenty squares and randomly rearranged the pieces. He then turned this composition upside down and painted it onto twenty wood panels. After rearranging it once more, he connected the panels into the final painting. Although his artistic decisions ultimately dictate the final composition, Kelly's use of chance partially disconnects him from the resulting work. Such efforts to reduce the artist's emotions, influence, or individual marks have been important facets of Kelly's artwork, suggesting that all apparently "controlled" creativity is always partly a matter of an artist's making the most of chance collisions with unexpected and impersonal forces.
Red Blue Green

Red Blue Green, 1963, The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jack M. Farris
Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 83 5/8 x 135 7/8 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly

Kelly put great emphasis on the tensions between the 'figure' and the 'ground' in his paintings, aiming to establish dynamism within otherwise flat surfaces. In Red Blue Green, part of his crucial series exploring this motif, Kelly's sharply delineated, bold red and blue shapes both contrast and resonate with the solid green background, taking natural forms as inspiration. The relationship between the two balanced forms and the surrounding color anticipates the powerful depth that defined Kelly's later relief paintings. Therefore, these works serve an important bridge connecting his flat, multi-panel paintings to his sculptural, layered works.
Black over Blue

Black over Blue, 1963, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection
Painted aluminum. Dimensions: 81 3/4 x 64 x 7 inches. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly

Upon returning to New York after six influential years in Paris, Kelly progressed beyond his multiple-panel paintings to reliefs. Black over Blue, first exhibited in the Betty Parsons Gallery, reflects his recurring interest in both layered works and non-traditionally shaped canvases. His paintings are often hung away from the wall, giving them a three-dimensional, sculptural quality. In fact, the painting's interaction with the wall was a strong focus for Kelly. In Black over Blue, the curved, black panel extends beyond the confines of the rectangular blue canvas, making the surrounding wall an essential part of the composition. Wall, artwork, and space itself become nearly equally important aspects of the viewer's experience, finally leading to a heightened awareness of one's own body as a similar, energized "gesture" in the same architectural setting.
Creueta del Coll

Creueta del Coll, 1987, City of Barcelona, Spain
Weathering steel. Dimensions: 390 x 330 x 5 1/4 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly

During the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by his move to the pastoral upstate New York, Kelly began expanding his use of the curve and making large, totem-like sculptures - many designed to be displayed outdoors. The 12-foot tall, slightly curving Creueta del Coll reflects both of these important new directions in his work.Kelly created a highly abstracted version of a specific, recognizable form - in this case, an ancient Greek statuary form known as kouros, or male youth. Like many of Kelly's sculptures, this one and a half inch-thick piece painted matte-black is very flat and has a two-dimensional quality. He encouraged his viewers to question traditional perspectives by creating sculptural paintings that might sit on the floor and flat sculptures that lean against a wall.
Red Diagonal

Red Diagonal, 2007, The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Donna and Howard Stone Collection
Oil on canvas, two joined panels. Dimensions: 84 1/4 x 109 3/8 x 2 5/8 inches. Photo by Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy of the artist. ©Estate of Ellsworth Kelly

In the 1990s, Kelly further developed the possibilities of the relief and continues expanding on this motif today. Red Diagonal employs a striking, geometric construction that echoes the forms created by his earlier panels attached side-by-side. At the same time, these layered pieces extend away from the wall, cutting into the viewer's space. His careful placement of the overlapping canvases creates precise, yet varying shapes in both the positive and negative space.
Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.