Today is the birthday of painter, printmaker and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly. The ardent explorer of color spectrums and panel paintings turns 89 years old today.

Kelly was born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York. During his early years as an art student, he studied at Pratt Institute, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a period of coursework that was briefly interrupted by military service during WWII from 1943-1945. During this period, Kelly served in "the Ghost Army," a camouflage unit comprised mostly of artists and designers whose task was to misdirect the axis powers with inflatable tanks.

After the war, Kelly headed for France and firmly planted himself in Paris, where he began to develop his distinct aesthetic, influenced by his interactions with fellow artists John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi. Six years of Parisian life flew by, and Kelly decided to return to the U.S. and immerse himself in an art world brimming with artists in the wake of Abstract Expressionism.

ellsworth kelly


Kelly's newfound style, referred to as "hard-edge" or "color-field" painting, positioned himself as a bridge between geometric abstraction of the 1930s and 1940s and minimalist art of the 1960s and 1970s. Adding irregularly cut canvases and curved shapes to his repertoire, he mastered the dynamism of form and color through largely monochromatic canvases. Viewers of Kelly's work experience an instinctive rather than contextual response to his pieces and the spaces surrounding it, emphasizing the importance of negative space. And like his initial fascination with the manipulation of light through water, Kelly's abstract work continues to be based off visual sensations he himself has experienced. Comparing Kelly to contemporary Jasper Johns, the Chelsea art dealer Matthew Marks who now represents Kelly told The New York Times, “To a great extent Jasper is a literary artist. His work is coded with secret messages. Ellsworth is purely a visual artist. With Ellsworth there is no message, just an experience.”

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Ellsworth Kelly's sculpture, The Barnes Totem, on the grounds of The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.


Kelly showcased his work amongst the like of Robert Rauschenberg and Johns, exhibiting with major galleries like Betty Parsons. And one of his most iconic paintings, 'Spectrum V', hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art today. Though he did experience his fair share of lulls during his seven-decade career in abstract painting, the recent successes of Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst reveal that the art world is still pining for abstraction. In July of 2011, Kelly's work was installed on the facade of the American Embassy in Beijing, and he is juggling exhibitions in Boston, Munich, Los Angeles and New York City in this year alone. Working without studio assistants, he continues to produce paintings, sculpture and prints from his studio and residence in Spencertown, New York.

So join us in a toast and check out a slideshow of Ellsworth Kelly's work at LACMA earlier this year. We wish you a very happy birthday, Mr. Kelly!

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