Art History Lab

Uncovering the Life and Art of Ellsworth Kelly

The Early Life of

Ellsworth Kelly

Born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York,

Ellsworth Kelly was inspired by John James Audubon, the famous ornithologist, whose illustrations he had seen at a young age. He was fascinated by the vivid colors and vividness of the birds, which would later become an essential influence in his art.

Kelly’s parents recognized his artistic talent and provided him with artistic resources, such as drawing books and art supplies, to encourage his interest in art. Kelly’s early education played a significant role in his artistic career’s development.

Initially, he attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study art, but he was unable to finish the program because he was drafted into the U.S. military during World War II. While in the military, Kelly served in the Engineers Camouflage Battalion and worked as a typist.

In 1944, he transferred to the Ghost Army, a group of soldiers who used deception and strategic thinking to mislead enemy forces. Here, Kelly found a new creative outlet, designing camouflage patterns to reduce the chances of detection.

Education After the War

Completing his service in the military in 1945, Kelly had the opportunity to travel and explore art in various cities, such as Boston and Paris. In Boston, he attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he became interested in the works of Paul Cezanne and began to explore the ideas of abstraction.

Kelly later moved to Paris, where he immersed himself in the city’s cultural resources and studied art at the cole des Beaux-Arts. The diversity of cultures he was exposed to here further influenced his artistic style, helping him to develop his unique approach.

The Artistic Career of

Ellsworth Kelly

Kelly’s artistic career was not an easy journey, and he struggled to find his place in the art world. After moving to New York in the late 1940s, Kelly faced criticism from the art community, who found his art too closely resembling the European abstraction movement.

Despite the challenges, it did not take long for his work to gain popularity.

Ellsworth Kelly’s Paintings

Kelly’s paintings are famous for their simplicity and use of color, shape, and form. Works such as Seine and Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance I to VIII demonstrate Kelly’s skill in his color-blocking technique, while Black Ripe and Yellow Piece display his sensitivity to form and line.

His paintings focus on using simple shapes and vivid colors arranged to evoke a specific emotion.

Ellsworth Kelly’s Drawings and Lithographs

Kelly’s fascination with plants, particularly the Ailanthus tree and Hyacinth flower, inspired him to create an extensive collection of plant studies. He expressed this with a series of lithographs and drawings that captured the beauty of these plants, such as the Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs, which showcased the subtle variations of hues and tones.

Ellsworth Kelly’s Sculptures

Kelly’s sculptures are striking examples of his experimentation with form, line, and color. Frank Stella and other artists inspired him to produce large and intricately designed sculptures.

Examples of Kelly’s sculptures include the Concorde Relief I, Pony, Curve XXIII, and White Curves, with their sculptural forms and carefully arranged shapes and lines.

Exhibitions and Awards

Kelly’s artwork has been exhibited in various notable venues, including solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He received numerous awards, including the National Institute of Arts and Letters’ Painting Prize, the French Legion of Honor, Praemium Imperiale prize, and the National Medal of Arts.

Kelly’s body of work is seen as a defining moment in 20th-century art, with his use of color, line, form, and shape inspire generations of artists to come.


Ellsworth Kelly’s artistic career is notable for its artistic innovation and rich accomplishments. He was a versatile artist, renowned for his paintings, drawings, and sculptures, each with its unique qualities.

His recognition and success earned him numerous awards, commendations, and exhibitions worldwide, cementing his legacy as a crucial figure in the development of modern art. Kelly will always be remembered as an artist whose work expanded the boundaries of color and form, and his influence will continue to be felt for generations to come.

To gain a deeper understanding of

Ellsworth Kelly’s life and work, two book suggestions are highly recommended for your reading. These books provide an insightful glimpse into the artist’s inner world, and thus, they are highly prized treasures for art enthusiasts, students, and researchers alike.

Ellsworth Kelly: Thumbing Through the Folder- a Dialogue on Art

Ellsworth Kelly: Thumbing Through the Folder- a Dialogue on Art, published in 2013, is an interview that provides a rare opportunity for readers to engage with the artist personally. The book features a deep conversation between the artist and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss curator, artist, and art historian, during which they delve into Kelly’s work and creative process.

The interview provides a comprehensive overview of Kelly’s art, including his prints and observational art, and explores his inspirations and influences. In this book, Hans Ulrich Obrist prods Kelly to explain the artistic journey that led him to create some of his most iconic works.

Kelly discusses his desire to create work that is complex yet straightforward, where he hopes the viewers will find something new every time they look at it. The interview also covers Kelly’s printmaking activities, which reveal his love for paper and his tireless experimentation with form.

Additionally, they discuss Kelly’s fondness for observation-based art that captures the essence and beauty of everyday objects.

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, written by Tricia Paik and co-published by the Phaidon Press and Brandywine River Museum of Art, is a stunning monograph that provides a detailed analysis of the artist’s life and work. This book is the first comprehensive publication on Kelly’s life and features a collection of interview snippets, critical essays, and reproductions of works from the artist’s personal archives.

Paik gives readers an unprecedented look into Kelly’s creative process, where he, whether through drawing, painting, or sculpting, seeks to excite the viewer’s senses. The monograph also provides a glimpse into Kelly’s personal life, including his lifelong bond with France, his admiration for Matisse, and his love of the outdoors.

Readers will gain valuable insights into Kelly’s approach to art, his use of color, and the inspiration behind his singular forms. The comprehensive essays, together with the archival photographs, make this book an essential tool for understanding the artist’s life and legacy.

These two books,

Ellsworth Kelly: Thumbing Through the Folder- a Dialogue on Art and

Ellsworth Kelly, offer an in-depth glimpse into the life and work of one of the most transformative artists of the 20th century. They provide a comprehensive overview of Kelly’s creative journey, from his early life and educational experiences to his groundbreaking artwork and the exhibitions he held throughout his career.

These books are a must-read for art lovers interested in learning about

Ellsworth Kelly’s approach to art and his enduring influence on the contemporary art world. Whether you are an artist, scholar, or simply someone with a profound appreciation for art, you will find these books to be both informative and inspiring.

In conclusion,

Ellsworth Kelly’s life and work represent a significant contribution to the art world, and his legacy continues to influence contemporary art today. Through his use of color, shape, and form, Kelly challenged conventional perceptions of art and captured the essential beauty in everyday objects.

The books,

Ellsworth Kelly: Thumbing Through the Folder- a Dialogue on Art and

Ellsworth Kelly, offer readers a unique window into the artist’s creative process, personal life, and inspirations. Both books are excellent resources for art enthusiasts, researchers, and students seeking to gain a deeper understanding of Kelly’s enduring impact on the art world.

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