Ellsworth Kelly, long known as one of the pre-eminent abstract artists in the United States, has died at the age of 92. Ellsworth enjoyed a career that spanned seven decades, during almost all of which Kelly’s work was in high demand.
Although Kelly had a lengthy period of notoriety, he plotted out a life much removed from that of a typical artist before he found his fame. In a Q&A with actress Gwyneth Paltrow for Interview, Ellsworth spoke about joining the armed forces during the World War II era. It was there that he found one of his first sources of real-world inspiration while designing camouflage for the organization.
“I went to Pratt [Institute] right after high school. I was there for a year, and I read an article in the paper about the Army working with camouflage in Fort Meade, Maryland. I didn’t want to be in the infantry, so I wrote them saying, ‘I’m an artist and I’d love to be in your outfit.’ They said, ‘Get in the Army. We have your name. We’ll find you.’ And that’s what they did. Life had been peaceful up until high school, but the business of the Nazis and Pearl Harbor was very strong, and I guess I wanted to insist that I could live a man’s life.”
— Guggenheim Museum (@Guggenheim) December 28, 2015
After his time in the Army, Kelly moved to Paris where he found himself incredibly isolated due to a poor grasp of the French language. Ellsworth looked for an escape in the great European capital around him, Kelly told The New York Times, finding inspiration in its forms and figures, and in the art in both its contemporary galleries and world-class museums.
“I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures. I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me.”
Finding little success in Paris, Ellsworth eventually moved home to the United States upon hearing that work similar to his was beginning to come into fashion. Within a few short years, Kelly became a sizable name in the New York art scene, winning space in surveys of the greatest modern American painters in places like the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art. In the 1970s and 80s, his work really began to pick up speed: from Boston to Rome, retrospectives of his work took place.
Despite living the rest of his life in New York, Ellsworth was forever marked by his time in Paris. Kelly remarked that he often felt out of place in both locations.
“In France, they thought I was too American. And when I came back, people said, ‘You’re too French.’ I just stuck to my guns and continued painting. I thought I had something really important that came to me in France. That was hard, though, because it was right at the moment of the breakthrough of the Abstract Expressionists.”
Ellsworth Kelly dies leaving behind an incredibly storied legacy that spanned several continents. He is survived by his husband, Jack Shear, a photographer with whom he shared the last 28 years of his life.
[Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images]