Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly

With Frieze London happening right now, we turn our attention to the enriching possibilities of visual art, and the positive impact it might have on our mental and emotional outlook. To add some colour to your day, we’ve chosen the late American artist Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) as our subject, whose bright and brilliant works continue to inspire joy in whoever is lucky enough to gaze upon them.


Today, Ellsworth Kelly is renowned for his bold abstract paintings in intense hues of red, yellow, blue and green. This wasn’t always the case, however, and despite being one of the most unique and innovate painters of the twentieth century, Kelly’s work has defied easy categorisation. Spanning some seventy years, his artistic career began in 1941 when he took classes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. After a brief interruption in his education due to the Second World War, Kelly emigrated to Paris, where his entire approach to painting was challenged and transformed—as he stated, “I soon realized after arriving in Paris in 1948 that figurative painting no longer interested me”.[1] As the famous anecdote goes, in the summer of 1949, Kelly vacated Paris for the island of Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany. It was here, looking through the window of his cottage in Northern France, that Kelly experienced a kind of epiphany: mesmerised by the simple structure of the window’s framework, the painter distilled what he saw into a flattened abstraction, and the window and its frame were deconstructed into pure form, rendered in black lines on white wood.

The window painting was a revelation, and this sense of liberation was integral to the artist’s evolution of style. It also tells us an important aspect of Kelly’s philosophy, which from this moment forward was to take artistic inspiration from everyday settings. From his perspective, mundane objects, such as windows and doors, are the perfect conduits for beauty, and Kelly’s paintings invite us to reflect on the way we see, and appreciate, the world around us. Another example from this early period, the painting, Seine (1951), was completed after a routine walk along the Parisian river to his studio on the Île Saint-Louis. Looking at the water as he crossed a bridge, Kelly noticed the checker-work of light and shadow dancing across the river’s surface and translated this visual experience into a vast painting, characterised by black and white pixilated squares merging together in harmony. The work captures what it means to live in the present, and to stay attuned to your surroundings.  

Upon return to New York in 1954, Kelly found himself in the midst of an increasingly dynamic cultural atmosphere, dominated by the leading art movement of the day: Abstract Expressionism and its poster-boy painters, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and to a lesser extent Robert Rauschenberg. Just as France had revolutionised his work, this new artistic environment emboldened Kelly to attempt new methods and new approaches, and his art during this period proliferated in a number of ways, with sculpture, collage and costume design incorporated into his oeuvre. Over the course of the ensuing decades, Kelly’s work grew in scope and in scale, and in so doing he radically redefined the act of painting and the act of seeing.

A final testament to the painter’s diverse talents and generous work can be found in the recently opened chapel in Austin, Texas, designed by Kelly before his death. A lifelong atheist, Kelly created the space with an absence of any religious imagery or scripture. Instead, the soothing atmosphere of the building is produced through patterns of geometric shapes and rainbow-coloured stained-glass windows. Unlike the austere and clinical nature of Minimalism and the overly intellectualising attitude of the Abstract Expressionists, Kelly’s work radiates with warmth and peacefulness. The Chapel is a culmination of a career which moved art beyond the canvas, asking us to appreciate beauty in simple forms and the experiences of the everyday. While Kelly described the chapel as “a space of calm and light”, the same could be said of his most of his works from the preceding sixty years. So, find your favourite painting or a space that is special to you, and allow your mind to release to the pleasures of visual art.

[1] Ellsworth Kelly, quoted in Ellsworth Kelly, John Coplans (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1971), p. 20.