Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015): American abstract artist

Learning of the death of Ellsworth Kelly reminded me of the first time I viewed one of his works. The occasion was the Metropolitan Museum’s centennial exhibition, ‘New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970’, curated by Henry Geldzahler when he was but 33 years old. The exhibition displayed 408 works by 43 artists whom Geldzahler identified as the key innovators of post-war art in New York. Geldzahler’s exhibition was an epic proclamation on American culture in the middle decades of the twentieth century. And it was encyclopaedic, exhibiting works from Abstract Expressionism to Pop. It was the first exhibition of its kind at the venerable Met and it was, from my perspective, an epiphany.

Kelly, of course, had several paintings in the exhibition; the one that really knocked me out was Spectrum V (1969), a series of tall, narrow monochrome canvases representing the spectrum of visible light. The hues you would ordinarily expect — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet — were somehow “off”. Rather than using fully saturated pigments to represent the spectrum, Kelly introduced a succession of gorgeous tints. The work, which consisted of thirteen panels, cycled from bright lemon yellow through greens, blues, violets, reds, and oranges back to yet another yellow hue. This was not your garden variety “R-O-Y-G-B-I-V”! The effect was exhilarating, not least because of the work’s scale: each panel is 84-1/4 x 34-1/4 inches and the entire installation is 37 feet long! MORE: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Spectrum V, 1969, by Ellsworth Kelly.
Spectrum V, 1969, by Ellsworth Kelly.

Much later, I had the privilege to correspond with Kelly. While gathering together reproductions for a monograph on Ad Reinhardt, I requested his permission to reproduce a couple of his early paintings (including a multi-colored grid, which I believe is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art). Reinhardt and Kelly were connected because they shared an interest in abstract painting, the very aspect of post-war New York art that, according to Geldzahler, distinguished it from contemporaneous European art. The abandonment of the human figure in a narrative setting and the making of large-scale painting brought together Reinhardt and Kelly. Both artists produced works of art that demanded of the viewer a different relation to painting and opened up a vast field of problems and possibilities for painters to come. As a young art student in 1969, face to face with Spectrum V, all I could say was, “I wish I had painted that!”


Ellsworth Kelly in Dallas by Charles Wylie ; with contributions by Yves-Alain Bois, Robert Storr, Wood Roberdeau ; catalogue design by Takaaki Matsumoto.

Ellsworth Kelly: A retrospective edited by Diane Waldman.


Thank you to Dr. Michael Corris, Professor of Art, SMU, for this blog post.
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Featured image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Spectrum V by Peter Roan.


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