As a young American in Paris in 1949 — four years out of the Army and one year out of a Boston art school — Ellsworth Kelly had an epiphany. The key to creative inspiration was in the world around him, not in other artists' studios or at the Louvre. If he paid close attention to, say, the contour of a window, the shape of a leaf, the play of light and shadows on man-made and natural forms, his art would emerge.
"I think if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract," the artist told an interviewer in 1991, reflecting on the evolution of his work. Six years later, when a Kelly retrospective exhibition — organized by New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum — appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he told a Times reporter: "I'm not searching for something. I just find it. The idea has to come to me … something that has the magic of life."
By then, Kelly was internationally known as a master of geometric abstraction, the high priest of crisp, hard-edge shapes and vivid colors. Art history books had classified him as an exemplar of Minimalism's cool aesthetic, which gathered force in the 1950s and '60s in reaction to Abstract Expressionism's emotional aura.
"Minimalism was a necessary, even valuable phase, of modern art," states "History of Art," a monumental text on Western art written by H.W. Janson and subsequently revised and expanded. "At its most extreme, it reduced art not to an eternal essence but to an arid simplicity. In the hands of a few artists of genius like Kelly, however, it yielded works of unprecedented formal perfection."
But for Kelly, perfection had little to do with geometry. What he wanted was joy. He found it through a keen perception of things he saw.
Kelly died Sunday afternoon at his home in Spencertown, N.Y. He was 92. His death was confirmed to The Times by Matthew Marks, owner of the Matthew Marks Gallery, which represents Kelly.
"I can confirm he died at home this afternoon. I saw him last week. He had just completed five new paintings. He was working well until the end," Marks said. "He had a nice Christmas with a lot of friends and fellow artists."
Four of Kelly's works fill a room at the Broad, the museum in downtown Los Angeles founded by philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe. In a review of the opening, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight noted the artwork's "seamless fusion of bold geometric shapes, crisp composition and saturated colors grabs you by the lapels.... All calmly share the same flat plane, perfectly balanced in scale and chromatic intensity, yet straining to burst their optical bonds. Kelly makes poise look easy."
Long before Kelly's death, art historians and critics pondered the complexities of his work and where it fit.
In the catalog of the Guggenheim's 1996-98 traveling retrospective, curator Diane Waldman wrote: "Kelly's need to make color an independent entity and to align it with a specific shape and space may have set him apart from a particular group or movement, but it has not set him apart from the art and culture of the 20th century nor from the age-old issues that animate art and give it its true meaning. It is Kelly's strength to objectify color and form and to distill its essence from the world of reality, drawing on human emotion, imagination, and spirit."
Reviewing the show for the New Yorker, Simon Schama wrote that the strength of Kelly's "opulently colored and gracefully formed" work was "its winning combination of perceptual subtlety and sensuous immediacy: a philosophical delicacy of vision pumped up into raw chromatic heft."
Kelly was born May 31, 1923, in Newburgh, N.Y. His father, Allan Howe Kelly, worked for the U.S. Army at West Point; his mother, Florence Githens Kelly, had been a teacher. The family moved to Pittsburgh when Ellsworth was a baby and in 1929 relocated to Oradell, N.J., where Allan Kelly became an insurance company executive.
Ellsworth, the second of three sons, honed his powers of observation early, developing what would become a lifelong interest in bird-watching. At Oradell Junior High School, he was honored as its "best artist" in the 1938 yearbook — and named the "class giant," apparently because of his height.
Kelly made his first oil painting in high school and studied art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1941 to 1943, when he was inducted into the Army. He briefly trained with mountain ski troops in Colorado but was granted a requested transfer to a camouflage battalion in Maryland, where he made silk screen posters used to teach concealment techniques. In 1944, he joined a decoy unit in Tennessee that was sent to Europe. Eventually stationed near Paris, he visited the city but was unable to go to the museums that he would come to know a few years later.
Discharged from military service in the fall of 1945, Kelly studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston under the G.I. Bill until spring 1948. Within a few months, he had returned to Paris with funds from the G.I. Bill. He registered at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but essentially educated himself by embracing the international art community, going to museums and traveling in France.
Kelly would become a pillar of 20th century American art. Marks, his dealer in the last decades of his life, called him "a true American original." But the artist's six-year sojourn in France launched his career. That's where he painted "Plant I," his first use of a white form on a black ground, and produced his first lithographs, collages, reliefs and shaped-wood cutouts. Turning away from figurative work, he joined two painted panels in "Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris." Often cited as a seminal piece, the 1949 construction transforms an architectural detail into a spare, geometric abstraction.
Kelly exhibited his work in Paris, but returned to the United States in 1954 and settled in New York. Although he had to support himself with a night job at a post office, he quickly made connections with artists and dealers. His first U.S. solo exhibition opened in 1956 at Betty Parsons' avant-garde gallery in Manhattan. Kelly continued to show at Parsons until 1963, then moved on to other prestigious New York galleries, including Sidney Janis, Leo Castelli and Blum-Helman.
In the late 1950s and '60s, he lived and worked at an artists' community on Coenties Slip, a tiny street overlooking the East River, where his neighbors included Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, Agnes Martin and Jack Youngerman. Kelly moved to Spencertown in upstate New York in 1970 and established a large studio there. He met his companion, photographer Jack Shear, in 1982.
Tall, slim and energetic, Kelly radiated personal warmth and a sense of profound engagement with his work. In interviews, he might break into a dance or greet a reporter with a disarming question: "How long has it been since we talked?"
Kelly has left a huge legacy of parallel but interconnected bodies of work — paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints — made over long periods of time. Throughout his long career, he investigated natural forces and biomorphic forms as well as man-made curves and grids. His work has been exhibited at and collected by an international array of museums. He also has made a mark with major sculptural commissions in prominent places such as the Tokyo International Forum, Boston's federal courthouse and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Although he spent most of his life on the East Coast, Kelly had a strong connection to Los Angeles beginning in the mid-1960s. His work appeared in solo exhibitions at Ferus, Irving Blum, Margo Leavin and Ace galleries. He also made frequent West Coast trips to work with master printers at Gemini G.E.L. and art fabricator Peter Carlson, who built his sculptures.
But spring 2012 was an unusually big L.A. season for Kelly. Marks opened a Los Angeles branch of his New York gallery with a show of Kelly's new paintings in a boxy white building with a Kelly-designed black bar along the top of its façade. At the same time, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented a sweeping survey of his printmaking activity, in conjunction with the publication of a complete catalog of his prints.
In a book about the prints, critic Dave Hickey wrote: "Kelly's idea, it would seem, is to impose order on the world without bringing the world to order. As a result, when the knowing skill of long practice begins to refine his way of working, begins to disguise the rowdiness of its roots, Ellsworth Kelly is happy to relinquish control, to make some mistakes, to let some things happen, and then look again — and then maybe adjust things a little here and there, as the eye suggests they should be. Then proceed."