Two decades ago, the abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly was invited by Eli Broad to install some of his creations at the Los Angeles billionaire’s foundation in Santa Monica.
Broad recalled that Kelly spent two days overseeing every aspect of the installation — even the smallest details that many major artists would leave to assistants or curators. “He was such a perfectionist,” Broad said Monday in an interview.
The word “perfectionist” was something frequently repeated by those who knew and worked with Kelly, who died Sunday at 92.
A visitor looks at the artwork “Two Panels - Blue-Yellow” (1970) by artist Ellsworth Kelly as part of the exhibition “J’aime les panoramas” (I love the panoramas) at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) in Marseille, France in November 2015.(Bertrand Langlois / AFP/Getty Images)
Prominent New York artist Ellsworth Kelly in 1996. A major retrospective of his work travelled from the Guggenheim Museum in New York to L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.(Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times)
Ellsworth Kelly, “Black Relief with White,” 2011. Oil on canvas, two joined panels.(Matthew Marks Gallery)
President Obama awards Ellsworth Kelly the 2012 National Medal of Arts for his contributions as a painter, sculptor and printmaker.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
Works by U.S. artist Ellsworth Kelly are displayed during the Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Ellsworth Kelly exhibition preview at Villa Medici in 2010 in Rome.(Elisabetta Villa / Getty Images)
Ellsworth Kelly at the installation of his sculpture “The Barnes Totem” in the garden of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in 2012.(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
Ellsworth Kelly’s “Red Blue Green” (1963). Oil on canvas.(Ellsworth Kelly)
Installation view of an Ellsworth Kelly exhibit: “Prints and Paintings,” Jan. 22 – April 22, 2012, at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Ellsworth Kelly, “Head with Beard,” (1949) newspaper cutout.(Ellsworth Kelly)
Installation view of an Ellsworth Kelly exhibit: Prints and Paintings, Jan. 22 through April 22, 2012, at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Ellsworth Kelly, “Black Ripe,” (1955), oil on canvas.(Anderson Collection at Stanford)
Edythe and Eli Broad with artist Ellsworth Kelly in front of his paintings at the 1994 opening of the Broads’ gallery in Santa Monica.(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
At the same time, they fondly described him as a generous man who never stopped being curious about the world around him and who took simple pleasures in the creation of his art.
One of the leading abstract artists of the postwar period, Kelly created works of cleanly juxtaposed colors and shapes, many of which reside in major museums.
His prolific career saw forays into paintings, drawing and sculpture. For many, he ranks among the most important American artists of the last 100 years.
As with many creative titans, working with Kelly was not always a walk in the park, according to those who knew him.
The Guggenheim hosted a career retrospective for Kelly in 1996 that later came to the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A.
“When he would be working on an exhibition, he cared 100% about every last detail of placement, lighting, graphic design,” said Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“But it didn’t come with any of the unpleasantness that you would expect to come with that. It was done in a courteous, thoughtful, respectful way.”
His strong association with France continued throughout his life. In 2002, the Centre Pompidou in Paris mounted an exhibition examining the relationship between the works of Kelly and Matisse.
“France held a lot of nostalgia for him,” said Bernard Blistène, director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou. During a recent visit to Kelly’s home in Spencertown, N.Y., “the only thing he wanted to do was talk about France and modern art.”
Kelly lived for years with his partner, Jack Shear, whom he later married. “It was a real history of love between them,” Blistène said.
In 2012, the L.A. County Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of Kelly’s prints and paintings. Despite needing the assistance of an oxygen tank, the artist traveled west to attend the opening, during which he was feted at a lunch of about 100 guests.
Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the museum, said that she spent time with Kelly in his studio.
His art has “an exacting nature,” she explained, “but it also has a soul and humanity to it. It’s why they hit people viscerally — they’re not cold abstract works.”
For close to 40 years, Broad and his wife, Edythe, remained loyal collectors of Kelly’s work. Eight pieces reside in their new contemporary art museum in downtown L.A. The couple also show some of his work in their home.
“You see it as you enter. We’ve enjoyed living with it over the years,” Broad said. “He was a good friend. It’sa great loss to us personally.”
Despite living three hours outside New York, Kelly remained a palpable presence in the city’s art world. He was most recently represented by Matthew Marks, who has galleries in New York and L.A.
“He was an outgoing, gregarious and generous man,” said Hugh Davies, director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. When it came to work, “he was very precise.”
It was “great to witness his continued working the last days of his life,” said Sidney Felsen, a founder of Gemini G.E.L. in L.A., via email.
He recalled an encounter years ago when he saw Kelly staring at a wall that had about 15 samples of different yellows.
“He didn’t move for approximately 15 minutes,” said Felsen. When he finally walked away, “I said to him, ‘What was that about?’ He said: ‘There are a thousand yellows, I wanted to make sure I had the right one.’”