Appreciating “Legacy” Artist: Ellsworth Kelly

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Ellsworth Kelly is possibly one of the most distinctive artists you will ever see, and today Art in Action is trying to celebrate him and his striking body of work for his May 31st birthday. While many artists try to break new ground through complexity, technical proficiency, and attention to detail, Kelly found his niche in the art of simplicity and minimalism. However, it should be noted that many associate Kelly with the minimalist art movement, he actually preceded it by a decade. 

This association is entirely understandable due to the nature of his work. Kelly’s creations often feature simple shapes and plain, basic colors — such as a bright red, blue, and yellow. Though some do scoff at the simplicity of his output, it can’t be denied that Kelly’s presence would deeply impact the movement. Matthew Marks Gallery described how “Ellsworth Kelly’s innovations of the late 1940s and early 1950s helped reshape abstract art for decades. His development of the monochrome and the multi-panel painting, his devotion to integral forms, and his use of chance and seriality would prove central to painting’s break with expressionism in the 1960s.” 

credit: Galerie Magazine

His work was often very large in scale and always, always bold. Such boldness is not always appreciated by everyone though, and Kelly’s body of work was not without its detractors. While every artist has their critic, their issues typically fall into the accusations of “they’re not talented enough to be deserving of such applause” or “they’re not trying hard enough”. Kelly was no stranger to these claims. In fact PennLive (which their website describes as “Pennsylvania’s source for breaking news, sports, entertainment and weather.”) wrote a whole piece about one author’s frustration with Kelly. Titled “I have struggled with Ellsworth Kelly” and written by John Firestone, a local artists who “experience[s] art very personally and profoundly”, the post details Firestone’s personal issues with Kelly that he ultimately resolved due to a small child’s input. 

The article is a fantastic, well-written read that brings up some good points about Kelly and what his intention was with art — as well as his reshaping of how we should maybe respond to it. One comment of Firestone’s echos many similar criticism consumers feel towards “simplistic” art as a whole: “I struggle with this work. I struggle because of my own aesthetics. I think that art is the highest form of human expression and that expressing what it means to be human is to comment on human experience…So, I think of minimalism as something of a sham.” 

credit: My Modern Met

Truthfully, this is a very easy mindset to fall into. That an artist’s creative worth is dependent on the amount of identifiable effort they put into their paintings. Leonardo Da Vinci’s or Michelangelo’s outputs are so universally beloved because they took an undeniable and obvious amount of time, work, and skill. So with Kelly, an artist who did whole galleries devoted just to canvases painted various solid, bright colors and that was it, it’s easy to shrug him off. He’s not putting in much effort, so neither should the audience in their attempt to understand him. 

But Firestone would come to the ultimate conclusion in his article that what made Kelly’s pieces so striking was not their singular creation, but the relation audiences had with the paintings. The article describes how children would gawk at the paintings due to their eye-catching hues. Statues would change shape when you changed your position while staring at them. Even the panels painted one color would actually change shades depending on how the light hit them. Kelly’s artwork is not beautiful when stagnant, but becomes mesmerizing when placed in different environments. They’re entirely malleable pieces which can conjure varying meanings from those that observe them. Most important of all, they were new! Admittedly, they were new at the time. Now, it’s very easy to come across an artist whose slapped some color onto a canvas. However, that’s because of Ellsworth Kelly! 


Matthew Marks Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly

Brittanica, Ellsworth Kelly 

Pennlive, I Have Struggled With Ellsworth Kelly