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Ellsworth Kelly (1923 – 2015)

One of the great innovators of American Minimalism and Color Field painting, Ellsworth Kelly was born in Newburgh, New York in 1923. He took an interest in the arts at an early age but his parents were reluctant to allow their son to pursue a career in the field. Upon his graduation from high school, Kelly and his parents brokered a compromise; they agreed to pay for his studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but only if he agreed to study technical art and design.

Ellsworth Kelly attended Pratt Institute from 1941 until 1943, when he enlisted in the U.S. military. Balancing his desire to serve his country with his desire to further his artistic training, Kelly requested assignment to the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion, which employed artists to design and apply camouflage patterns to disguise the military’s armored vehicles. This exposure to the techniques of camouflage and visual deception, and to the effect that the interplay of light and dark abstracted shapes of color can have on an observer’s perception, would have a lasting and profound impact on Kelly’s artistic development as a painter, printmaker, and sculptor.

Following his departure from the service, Ellsworth Kelly used the G.I. Bill to fund the fine arts education his parents had refused him, studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1946-47, and later at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. While attending school in Boston, Kelly exhibited his work publicly for the first time in a group show at the Boris Mirski Gallery, but it wasn’t until he began his studies in Paris that the core of his aesthetic began to form. Although he attended classes infrequently, Kelly immersed himself fully in the robust artistic heritage and resources afforded by the French capital. There his influences ranged from the late canvases of Cézanne and Monet to the hard-edged rigor of Mondrian and the pared-down biomorphic sculptures of Brancusi.

In 1949, while living in Paris, Kelly produced his first work of Abstract Expressionism: a lattice of randomly arranged black and white rectangles titled Seine. By the mid-1950s, Ellsworth Kelly had given himself fully to the creation of pieces based on abstraction, producing large-scale paintings composed of shapes and planar masses typically presented as bright fields of color across multiple panels. During the late 1960s Kelly was one of the first artists to experiment with irregularly shaped and angled canvases. Kelly continued to expand on these variations on (and violations of) traditional artistic norms throughout his career, eventually pulling away from the wall into three-dimensional constructs that entered into the viewer’s space.

Strictly defining Kelly’s work is a confounding task, and this was by the artist’s design: he did not intend his abstractions to be the subject of literal interpretation or analysis. Rather, he wanted them to be felt, like an ocular punch to the gut. The initial reaction to any work by Ellsworth Kelly - that primal and purely emotive response that occurs somewhere between the observer’s acts of perception and cognition – was for Kelly the defining experience of his art. His works are not Rorschach tests to be consumed and considered until a familiar form appears; rather, they are forthright appeals to what Kelly called, in a rare interview with Holland Cotter of the New York Times, “the rapture of seeing.”

In 1957 the Whitney Museum of American Art became the first major institution to purchase a work by Ellsworth Kelly. In the years since, institutions around the globe have followed suit: today works by Kelly can be found in museums such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Works by Ellsworth Kelly command impressive sums on the secondary market. Prints, lithographs and smaller works regularly sell at auction in the five-figure range, while more significant originals and monumental works often realize prices of six to seven figures.

Ellsworth Kelly sold at Rago

Ellsworth Kelly

Colored Paper Image V (Blue Curves), 1976, $36,250

Ellsworth Kelly

18 Colors (Cincinnati), 1982, $33,750

Ellsworth Kelly

Grape Leaves III, 1973-74, $28,750

Ellsworth Kelly

Blue Gray Green Red, 2008, $23,750

Ellsworth Kelly

Green Curve, State 2 from Fans, 1988, $21,250

Ellsworth Kelly

Blue Curve from Fans, 1988, $21,250

Ellsworth Kelly

Woodland Plant, 1979, $20,000

Ellsworth Kelly

Untitled, 1949, $13,750