Born in New York in 1923, Ellsworth Kelly studied at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, from 1941 to 1943. After two years of military service he studied painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1946 to 1948. Having briefly visited Paris during World War II, he returned to live there in 1948. Within a year of his arrival, Kelly was painting his first abstract pictures using a mix of chance elements and organic undertones. He had his first one man show in Paris in 1951 before returning to New York three years later.
Kelly worked in several media. Along with paintings, drawings, prints and collages, he produced free-standing and relief sculptures. His work was guided by simple geometry, flat colour, and bold scale, all informed by observations of the world around him.
Kelly had his first solo show in New York in 1956. Three years later he was included in ‘Sixteen Americans’, featuring emerging artists such as Johns, Rauschenberg, and Stella, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he was later to have his first American retrospective in 1973. His second, in 1996 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, traveled to Los Angeles, London and Munich. Other museum surveys focused on specific bodies of work, including a retrospective of works on paper at the Fort Worth Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a print retrospective at the Detroit Institute of Arts, both in 1987.
Kelly’s work was selected for the American Pavilions, both at the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel several times throughout his life. In recognition of his early relationship to France, he was awarded the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2002 by the French government. In 2013 he received the National Medal of Arts, considered America’s highest honor for artistic excellence, from President Obama.
Kelly died aged 92 in New York in 2015.