Ellsworth Kelly

American painter, sculptor, and printmaker (1923-2015)

Ellsworth Kelly (May 31, 1923 - December 28, 2015) was an American painter and sculptor associated with Hard-edge painting, Color Field painting and the Minimalist school. His art demonstrates unassuming techniques that emphasize the simplicity of form.

photo of Kelly, 2008 and his quote 'Instead of making a picture that was an interpretation of a thing seen, or a picture of invented content, I found an object and 'presented' it as itself alone'


Kelly, 1953: 'Red Yellow Blue White and Black', oil on canvas, 7 joined panels
Kelly, 1978: 'Color Panels for a Large Wall', 18 panels, oil on canvas
Kelly, 2006: 'Blue, Green, Red (EK 950)', in the lobby


  • My collages are only ideas for things much larger – things to cover walls. In fact all the things that I have done I would like to see much larger. I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long – to hang on walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures – they should be the wall – even better – on the outside wall – of large buildings. Or stood up outside as billboards or a kind of modern 'icon'. We must make our art like the Egyptians, the Chinese & the African and the Island primitives – with their relation to life. It should meet the eye direct.
    • Quote in a letter to John Cage, 4 September 1950; as quoted in "Ellsworth Kelly, a Retrospective", ed. Diane Waldman, Guggenheim museum, New York 1997, p. 11
  • This book [full of linoleum prints] will be an alphabet of pictorial elements without text, which shall aim at establishing a larger scale of painting, a closer contact between the artist and the wall, and a new spirit of art accompanying architecture.
    • In the introduction, (written in 1951) of his not published book: "Line Form and Color"; as quoted in "Ellsworth Kelly, a Retrospective", ed. Diane Waldman, Guggenheim museum, New York 1997, p. 22


  • I'm interested in the mass and color, the black and the white, the edges happen because the forms get as quiet as they can be.
    • Early 1960s : "Ellsworth Kelly, a Retrospective", ed. Diane Waldman, Guggenheim Museum, New York 1997, p. 11
  • I like to work from things that I see, whether they're man-made or natural or a combination of the two.. .The things that I'm interested in have always been there. The idea of a shadow and a natural object has existed, like the shadow of the pyramids, or a rock and its shadow; I'm not interested in the texture of the rock, or that it is a rock, but in the mass of it, and its shadows.
    • Quote in an interview by Henry Geldzahler, 'Art International 1.', February 1964, p. 48
  • Simple, I don't like the word simple. I like easy better. I want to forget about the technique. I sweat and worry but I don't want it look like that; but you can’t separate the artist and his technique.
    • In an interview by Henry Geldzahler, 'Art International 1.', February 1964, p. 48
  • I usually let them [his drawings] lies around for a long time. I have to get to really like it. And then when I do the painting I have to get to like that too. Sometimes I stay with the sketch, sometimes I follow the original idea exactly if the idea is solved. But most of the time there have to be adjustments during the painting. Through the painting of it I find the color and I work the form and play with it and it adjusts itself.
    • In an interview by Henry Geldzahler, 'Art International 1.', February 1964, p. 48
  • I felt that everything is beautiful, but [not?] that which man tries intentionally to make beautiful; that the work of an ordinary bricklayer is more valid than the artwork of all but a very few artists.
    • Quotes from 'Notes from 1969', Ellsworth Kelly; as quoted in the exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 13 December


  • Soon after completing the 'La Combe' series [circa 1950] I had a dream in which I was assisted by many children on a scaffold, painting a huge mural made up of square panels fitted together. Each panel was being painted by a child very quickly in long black strokes with huge brushes. The work was done in seconds. Upon waking I immediately made a reminder sketch of the mural. Later I made a drawing of many ink strokes, which I cut up into twenty squares and placed at random in a four-by-five grid..
    • as quoted in "Ellsworth Kelly", John Coplands; Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1971


  • Like the postcard collages, the colors are shapes in a landscape. In this case [his collage 'Napoleon at Würtsburg'] it is a painting of a landscape, not a photo as in the postcards [collages], and therefore a contrast of the traditional painting and a presentation of literal space on top of depicted space.
    • In: 'Kelly in conversation, summers 1985 and 1986'; ed. Diane Upright, "Ellsworth Kelly: Works on Paper", Harry N. Inc., Publishers, New York, in association with the Fort Worth Art Museum, New York, 1987 p. 21
  • I made the photographs just like I draw.. .I wanted the photographs [Kelly made circa 1950 in Paris] to be enlightening to my art..
    • p. 21 : 'Kelly in conversation, summers 1985 and 1986'
    • In: 'Kelly in conversation, summers 1985 and 1986'; ed. Diane Upright, "Ellsworth Kelly: Works on Paper", Harry N. Inc., Publishers, New York, in association with the Fort Worth Art Museum, New York, 1987 p. 21

Ellsworth Kelly: Works on Paper (1987)

Quotes from: Ellsworth Kelly: Works on Paper, ed. Diane Upright, Harry N. Inc., Publishers, New York, in association with the Fort Worth Art Museum, New York, 1987
  • In 1949, I ceased figurative painting and began works that were object oriented. The drawings from plant life seem to be a bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the paintings in 1949 that are the basis for all my later work. After arriving in Paris in 1948, I realized that figurative painting and also abstract painting (though my knowledge of the latter was very limited) as I had known in the 20th century no longer interested me as a solution to my own problems. I wanted to give up easel painting which I felt was too personal.
    • p. 9 : 'Notes from 1969'
  • All the art since the Renaissance seemed too men-oriented. I liked (the) object quality. An Egyptian pyramid, a Sung vase, the Romanesque church appealed to me. The forms found in the vaulting of a cathedral or even a splatter of tar on the road seemed more valid and instructive and a more voluptuous experience than either geometric or action painting.
    • p. 9 : 'Notes from 1969'
  • Instead of making a picture that was an interpretation of a thing seen, or a picture of invented content, I found an object and 'presented' it as itself alone. My first object was 'Window' [Museum of Modern Art, Paris], done in 1949. After constructed 'Window' with two canvases and a wood frame I realized that from then on painting as I had known it was finished for me. The new works were to be objects, unsigned, anonymous.
    • pp. 9-10 : 'Notes from 1969'
  • Everything that I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there already made, and I could take from everything. It all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory, with its broken and patched panels, lines on a road map, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same: anything goes.
    • p. 10 : Notes from 1969
  • There is always for me a dominant figure, I simply don't agree with people who see both readings as possible [of the figure ànd ground]
    • p. 16 : 'Notes from 1969'
  • The three horizontal bands at the top [ in his collage: landscape with paintings 1954] correspond to sea, sand and sky, while the yellow/white and red/white shapes at the bottom are the paintings – though of a kind I actually painted only later. It was the collage that suggested the idea of doing such paintings.
    • p. 18 : 'Notes from 1969'
  • I began to draw from plant life and found the flat leaf forms were easier to do than thighs and breasts. I wanted to flatten. The plant drawings from that time until now have always been linear. They are exact observations of the form of the leaf or flower of fruit seen. Nothing is changed or added, no surface marking. They are not an approximation of the thing seen nor are they a personal expression or an abstraction. They are an impersonal observation of the form. When I applied the procedure to other things such as the vaulting of Notre Dame [church in Paris] or a patch of tar on the road, the subject of the drawings and the subsequent paintings were not recognizable even though they were exact copies of the thing seen. I wanted to use things that had no pictorial use.
    • pp. 25-26 : 'Notes from 1969'
  • I made it from just three lines in less than a minute. It was the first of the series [Water lily drawings, Kelly made in 1968; he admired the Waterlilies paintings of Monet that got the weight right. My eye followed my hand. Then I did all the others, but this was the best.
    • p. 26 : 'Notes from 1969'
  • My work is about structure. It has never been a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. I saw the Abstract Expressionists for the first time in 1954. My line of influence has been the 'structure' of the things I liked: French Romanesque architecture, Byzantine, Egyptian and Oriental art, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Klee, Picasso, Beckman..
    • p. unknown : 'Notes from 1969'
  • In my painting, negative space is never arbitrary. (I believe lithographs to be colored marks printed on a ground – the paper and the measure of the ground and the marks are to be considered of equal importance). In my painting, the painting is the subject rather than the subject the painting.
    • p. unknown : 'Notes from 1969'
  • When I was a child, I spent all my spare time looking at birds and insects (beetles). My color use, and the object quality of the 'painting', and the use of fragmentation is closer to birds and beetles and fish, than it is to De Stijl or the Constructivists.
    • p. unknown : 'Notes from 1969'
  • Looking through an aperture [a door or a window] is a way that I have been able to isolate or fragment a single form. My first memory of focusing through an aperture occurred when I was around twelve years old. One evening, passing the lighted window of a house. I was fascinated by red, blue and black shapes inside a room. But when I went up and looked in, I saw a red coach, a blue drape and a black table. The shapes had disappeared. I had to retreat to see them again.
    • p. unknown : 'Notes from 1969'
  • I admired and felt the anonymous structure of the work of Brancusi, Vantongerloo, Arp, and Taeuber-Arp [the wife of Hans Arp] whose studios I visited. [Kelly frequently visited Hans Arp and his wife in Paris and discussed his fresh-made art with them intensively]. Their work reinforced my own ideas for the creation of a Pré-Renaissance, European type art: its anonymous stone work, the object quality of the artifacts, the fact that the work was more important than the artist’s personality. Of the Europeans, I mostly admired the way Picasso, Klee and Brancusi 'made' their art. Contrary to what has been said about me, Mondrian and Matisse did not interest me when I was in Paris. Mondrian’s [paintings] could not be seen in Paris and when I did see them in Holland in 1953, I thought their structure too rigid and intellectual.
    • p. unknown : 'Notes from 1969'
  • When I left Paris in 1954, I saw no art that was being 'made' like mine and returning to the U.S. I found no one 'making' art that way either. In my own work, I have never been interested in painterliness (or what I find is) a very personal handwriting, putting marks on a canvas. My work is a different way of seeing and making something and which has a different use.
    • p. unknown : 'Notes from 1969'
  • Making art has first of all to do with honesty. My first lesson was to see objectively, to erase all 'meaning' of the thing seen. Then only, could the real meaning of it be understood and felt.
    • p. unknown : 'Notes from 1969'
  • The form of my painting is the content.
    • as quoted in "Abstract Art", Anna Moszynska, Thames and Hudson 1990, p. 173
  • When I want to do a painting with one colour overlapping another, it has to be a real overlap, not a depicted overlap. I didn't want to paint an overlap, meaning that it would be a deception or illusion. I no longer wanted to depict space, but to make a work that existed in literal space. Thus, my recent works are one canvas as a relief over another canvas. Another important example of a panel painting that explores the idea of the mural was Red Yellow Blue White 1952. It's the only one I ever did using actual dyed fabric of ready-made colours, which moves the painting into the realm of real objects.
    • In: 'Colour Chart I', interview with Christoph Grunenberg, 1 May 2009; 'Sixty years at full intensity', Tate 2009
  • In Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Fauves – Matisse, Derain – were using bright colours in their full intensity, which continued with Kandinsky, Malevich, Kirchner, Léger and Mondrian. They employed all the colours of the spectrum. In the 1940's and 1950's the majority of the Abstract Expressionists in New York rebelled against this European use of colour and mostly used mixed colours. That is, the Abstract Expressionists did use bright colours sometimes, but they tended to paint wet-on-wet, which muddled their hues. As Matisse would say, a small patch of any one colour is far less intense than a large one of the same colour. I returned in 1954 [from Paris] to New York and showed paintings done in France at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1956 with bright colours that wouldn’t really be used until the Pop artists in the 1960's. My idea of using colour at its full intensity, which began with Colors for a Large Wall, hasn’t changed in the 60 years that I’ve been painting.
    • In: 'Colour Chart I', interview with Christoph Grunenberg, 1 May 2009; 'Sixty years at full intensity', Tate 2009

Quotes about Ellsworth Kelly

  • Significantly he [Kelly] developed productive relationships [in Paris, circa 1949] with Alexander Calder (a friendship that continued for years after their return to the United States), Jean Arp (who showed in his studio in Meudon his and Sophie Täuber-Arp’s early works to Kelly, thereby providing his 'first introduction to fragmented forms according to the laws of chance'), and John Cage (who likewise encouraged Kelly’s pursuit of serendipitous aesthetic strategies).
    • Madeleine Grynsztejn, her quote in: 'Clear-Cut: The Art of Ellsworth Kellyhttps://www.facebook.com/Mara-Heijbrands-1678248959087914/?fref=ts in the catalogue "Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco", ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn & Julian Meyers, University of California Press, 2002, p. 9
  • Ellsworth Kelly spent the years 1948–54 in Paris, and the period was formative for the young artist. He was introduced to European and American modernists, including Jean Arp and John Cage, both of whom had an enormous impact on Kelly’s development and the creation of the Study for 'Cité'. Cage and Arp encouraged Kelly to involve chance in his compositional arrangements, as Arp had done in Dadaist collages as early as 1916, and as Cage began to do in musical compositions in 1951.
  • Like Cézanne, Kelly observes nature. He simplifies and then flattens shapes until they become abstract. Ellsworth Kelly, .. ..said: "When I was studying at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1947, I painted a figure of a young man, taking my inspiration from Cézanne. I still look at Cézanne's works today."
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