Ellsworth Kelly, the Last Modernist

Ellsworth Kelly, who passed away in December, took the great modernist traditions of Europe and made them his own. His vision, technical mastery, and boundlessly fertile imagination produced a body of work that bears from its very beginning the marks of a true artist’s style and continues to delight and amaze its viewers. He stands as a supremely substantive figure in an era of aesthetic posturing and careerism.

Ellsworth Kelly's <em>Spectrum IV</em>, now on view at MoMa, highlights his impeccable eye for form and color.

Ellsworth Kelly. Spectrum IV. 1967. Oil on canvas, thirteen panels, 9′ 9″ x 9′ 9″ (297.2 x 297.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest and The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (both by exchange), and gift of Irving Blum © 2016 Ellsworth Kelly. Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum IV, now on view at MoMa, highlights his impeccable eye for form and color.

The art world lost a titan when Ellsworth Kelly passed away in the waning days of December. In many ways, the twilight of his long career marks the end of another era. Kelly’s long-time partner Jack Shear once said to me that Ellsworth was the last European modernist. There is much truth to this; certainly it was how Ellsworth viewed himself. Though he was an extraordinary innovator and a quintessentially American artist with a quintessentially American life, his art and his personal manner harkened back to another era and were imbued with all the greatness of that tradition.

Unlike the conceptual artists Kelly is often grouped with, much of his work was grounded in some way in reality. The first time I met Ellsworth, at a gallery opening, he focused all his considerable powers of observation on a pair of celadon green earrings from Italy my wife Sharon was wearing. He was fascinated by the interplay between the green on either side of her head, flanking a particular shade of red lipstick that struck him as well. “This is how it starts,” he said, meaning his paintings.

A great deal of thought went into each and every one of Ellsworth’s works. He was constantly observing and noting the beautiful subtleties of color and hidden geometric shapes and curves that go unnoticed by most people. His magnificent eye for color was honed during his childhood, when he was an obsessive birdwatcher. He would continue this visual education that began amid myriad plumage at the Pratt Institute and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and then at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The birds always stayed with him. Nearing 90 at his home in Spencertown in upstate New York, he stopped his vehicle to pick up a feather he spotted on the ground, which he presented to Sharon with great fanfare.

Almost from the beginning, he had a style that was most definitely his alone. His early paintings, which seem so simple, are often rooted in the angles or shadows of the structures that surrounded him during his years as an almost literally starving artist in Paris. From his more obviously tangible flower drawings to his ethereal color panels, everything was deliberate in Ellsworth’s work. This insatiable aesthetic curiosity and brilliant ability to change the ordinary into the transcendent was Ellsworth’s gift to all of us over his nearly 70-year career. It is impossible not to recognize a Kelly immediately. The magnificent colors and remarkable lines are unmistakable; all are a tribute to the beauty of our world both natural and manmade. At a talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ellsworth offered insights into his masterpiece, Spectrum, a series of color canvases hung across an enormous wall. No theoretical exercise, he explained: they had their origin in painted costumes he designed for a Merce Cunningham ballet. The movement of the dancers and the colors they wore came together in his mind to inspire the work.

A speaker at his 90th birthday compared the event to similar birthdays of Picasso and Matisse; the latter’s influence on Ellsworth was profound. Ellsworth too produced amazing work up until the end. Even in his final years, his vigor and productivity were extraordinary. A few years ago, Ellsworth collaborated with Sharon and the fashion designer Francisco Costa on an unusual project. In 1952, Kelly created Red Yellow Blue White, a piece made of dyed cotton which now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Using the excess material, he had made a dress for a friend of his, now unfortunately lost to time. But to commemorate his 90th birthday, Ellsworth recreated the vanished dress as a sculptural work. The project received significant attention from both the fashion press and the larger media — all of which the nonagenarian loved.

He was also a gentleman, elegant, extraordinarily intelligent, deeply cultured, charming and generous. He spent time with my children — then aged nine and seven — and told me how wonderful they were. Who can forget that? And he fought for our country in the Second World War as a member of the fabled team that created the Ghost Army: the legendary tactical deception that successfully tricked the Nazi generals as to the real location of the Normandy landings. Like many of his generation, Ellsworth never talked much about the war.

Ellsworth was also deeply steeped in the history of art from its beginnings to its present incarnations. He collected ancient colored birdstones and started his career in Paris, meeting and learning from the great sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. He was also of his moment and moved to New York at a time of creative ferment, when the city was playing host to other young artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol.

Unlike so many lesser artists today who seem to be playing a part in a melodramatic movie or stage-managing their own careers, Ellsworth was quiet and supremely substantive. Many people assume his canvases were painted with rollers or even by others, but each pigment was painstakingly applied by the master himself. In an age when many artists never even touch their own work Ellsworth still believed in the mastery of technique and the importance of skill as a foundation for even the most simple art, presiding over his own creative vision with his own hands — the way great artists have done for centuries.

The work of Ellsworth Kelly lives on, of course. It is optimistic and beautiful and timeless. And it all fits together in a magnificent way. Perhaps because Ellsworth himself was as extraordinary a person as he was an artist.