Ellsworth Kelly has been a widely influential force in the post-war art world redefining abstraction in art, and evading critical attempts to classify him as a Color Field, hard-edge, or Minimalist painter.
Born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York, Kelly studied at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the École des beaux-arts, Paris, France. He first rose to critical acclaim in the 1950s with his bright, multi-paneled, largely monochromatic and often irregularly shaped canvases. His drawings, paintings, sculptures, and prints, maintain a persistent focus on the dynamic relationships between shape, form and color and challenge viewers' conceptions of space. Through observation and abstraction of the world around him he developed his visual vocabulary — shapes and colors found in plants, architecture, shadows — which he employed in drawing, paintings, and sculptures to show an interest in the spaces between places and objects, and between his work and its viewers: "In my work I don't want you to look at the surface; I want you to look at the form, the relationships." His shaped-wood reliefs and collages were arranged according to the laws of chance and his multi panel painting could be recombined to produce alternate compositions.
He has executed many public commissions, including a mural for UNESCO in Paris (1969), a sculpture for the city of Barcelona (1978), and a memorial for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. (1993). Kelly's extensive work has been recognized in numerous retrospectives, including a sculpture exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1982); an exhibition of works on paper and a show of his print works that traveled extensively in the United States and Canada (1987–88); and a career retrospective organized by the Guggenheim Museum (1996), which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Tate Gallery, London; and Haus der Kunst, Munich. Since then, solo exhibitions of Kelly's work have been mounted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1998); Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1999); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2002); Philadelphia Museum of Art (2007); and MoMA (2007).
Kelly moved out of Manhattan in 1970 and set up a studio in Chatham and a home in nearby Spencertown, New York; he lived and worked there until his death in 2015.