Where Ellsworth Kelly’s colours came from

On the 95th anniversary of his birth, we examine how he was inspired by European painters and American birds
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Ellsworth Kelly, Spencertown, NY, 2012. Photo credit: © Jack Shear
Ellsworth Kelly, Spencertown, NY, 2012. Photo credit: © Jack Shear

Ellsworth Kelly’s colourful, hard-edged, abstract works are so precise and fully formed that it’s hard to conceive of a time when they weren’t widely shown and appreciated. However, before his death in December 2015, Kelly quite readily recalled the period when his art wasn't so welcome in the gallery system.

 

Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973, oil on canvas, 2 joined panels, 119 x 145 1/2 inches, 302.3 x 369.6 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art. From Ellsworth Kelly
Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973, oil on canvas, 2 joined panels, 119 x 145 1/2 inches, 302.3 x 369.6 cm. Photo credit: courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art. From Ellsworth Kelly

In a 2013 interview with the philanthropist and arts patron Agnes Gund, the artist described how his early colour inspirations came not from his fellow New Yorkers, but from European artists.

“European colour was very different from American colour,” he told Gund. “With the abstract expressionists, there was muted colour, mixed colours.”

Kelly preferred the kind of palette favoured on the far side of the Atlantic. “Think of early Kandinsky, his colour, then Léger, as early as 1912, did blocks of colours – that’s the colours that I developed. I like the spectrum. I developed that.”

 

He also drew from earlier, natural sources, including ornithology. “When I was six, my mother and grandmother bought me some bird books,” he says. “When I was a little older I would go looking for birds. I remember a little red and black bird in the pine forest behind my house. It kept flitting ahead of me. I would follow it and look at it and it was magic. I delighted in colour very early.”

 

Green Blue Red, 1963, oil on canvas, 67 1/2 x 90 inches, 171.5 x 228.6 cm Photo credit: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Green Blue Red, 1963, oil on canvas, 67 1/2 x 90 inches, 171.5 x 228.6 cm Photo credit: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
 

Unfortunately, it took the rest of the art world a little while to catch up with Ellsworth. “I had my first show at Betty Parsons in 56,” he recalls. “People didn’t really come to the show much. I felt embarrassed, I had to apologise for using bright colours!"

 

Ellsworth Kelly

Thankfully, he stuck with with that joyful impulse, and we all came around to his way of seeing things. To understand his work a little better order a copy of our Ellsworth Kelly book here; for an early-years introduction to his work get Up, Down & Other Opposites with Ellsworth Kelly; and for more on colour in art get Chromaphilia.


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