Ellsworth Kelly: The Memory of Things

Ellsworth Kelly Cover: Red Curves, 1996, oil on canvas, 142 — 65 1/2 in, 360.7 — 166.4 cm

When artist Ellsworth Kelly, a pioneer of the 20th Century American Abstract movement, is asked about how he views his work his answer is surprising. “My paintings,” he says, “are about the memory of things.”

For Kelly, who at 92 still lives and works out of his upstate New York studio, everything is connected. Abstraction is inspired by objects that exist in nature or what he calls “already mades.”

It’s a delicious thought, one of many that are examined in Ellsworth Kelly: a comprehensive monograph that fully explores the breadth of the artist’s almost 70 year oeuvre. Written by art historian and Kelly expert Tricia Paik and published by Phaidon Books, Ellsworth Kelly is gorgeous and oversized, a necessary and perfect addition to one’s art book library. Comprised of more than 350 color illustrations it includes all of his major works and periods from his early figurative art to his distinctive abstract paintings; his prints and drawings; his large-scale outdoor sculptures; as well as essays by leading art historians, curators and writers. Paik’s narrative chronology offers many interesting and previous unknown insights about Kelly’s life experiences and inspirations due to his close collaboration with this project. Its weight and size speak to the power and importance of his work as a transitional figure whose rejection of the highly emotive, gestural paintings of the post WWII era painters such as Jackson Pollock and others, influenced an entirely new and original generation of abstract artists.



Colors for a Large Wall, 1951
Colors for a Large Wall, 1951, oil on canvas, 64 joined panels, 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 in, 240 x 240 cm. Courtesy of Ellsworth Kelly Archives

I first discovered Ellsworth Kelly while studying art history at Wellesley College. My modern art professor, the great Nan Freeman encouraged her students to research and write about artists whose work they didn’t know and by which they were moved. I was drawn to the power and resonance and silence and abstracted cacophony in Kelly’s work. I loved his expressed exploration of nature and the effect of light on water and architectural planes.



Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973
Yellow with Red Triangle, 1973, oil on canvas, 2 joined panels, 119 x 145 1/2 inches, 302.3 x 369.6 cm. Courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Yellow with Red Triangle is the artist’s interpretation of flat shapes seen in the architectural details of doors.



Cite, 1951
Cite, 1951, oil on wood, adjustment of 20 panels, 58 ½ x 70¾ inches, Doris and Donald Fisher collection at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Early in his career, Kelly lived in Paris where he experimented with the theory of composition by chance in an effort to disconnect emotionally from the creative process. He created Cite by cutting up his own black-and-white brush stroke painting into 20 pieces that he then randomly rearranged so as to remove his individual mark as an artist.


Green Blue Red, 1963
Green Blue Red, 1963, oil on canvas, 67 1/2 x 90 inches, 171.5 x 228.6 cm. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Kelly’s initial desire, which continues today, was to create anonymous work that unlike his mid-century contemporaries showed no trace of artistic authorship. Yet, the irony is that it is immediately recognizable due to its unique use of hard-edged, color saturated, single and multiple-shaped blocks of color even though he doesn’t present one discernible brush stroke or even a signature.



Specturm V, 1969
Spectrum V, 1969, oil on canvas, 13 panels 84-1/4 x 34-1/4 inches, 214 x 87 cm.

Even today, many years after initially studying the work of Kelly, I often and inexplicably find myself in front of Spectrum V, which is part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love the fact that there is something about the architectural and meditative nature of these closely hung monochrome canvases that still affect me in the most profound and powerful and unspoken manner.


Ellsworth Kelly
By Tricia Y Paik
$125 US
Phaidon 2015



4 Replies to “Ellsworth Kelly: The Memory of Things”

  1. Hola, Nina,

    I never heard of Ellsworth Kelly before and find his art really beautiful. I always learn something positive & interesting from your blogs. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for turning me on to this fabulous artist. Makes me want to know more. . .and to head for a long-overdue trip to the Met!

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