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Abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly dies at 92; Art Institute home to collection of his works

Ellsworth Kelly

SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — Ellsworth Kelly, a painter, sculptor and printmaker whose work over seven decades made him one of America’s leading abstract artists, has died. He was 92.

Mr. Kelly’s Manhattan gallerist, Matthew Marks Gallery, said he died Sunday at his upstate New York home. Peter Wenk, the owner of a funeral home near the artist’s home studio in Spencertown, on Monday confirmed Mr. Kelly’s death but couldn’t provide any other details, such as a cause of death. In recent years, the artist had been suffering from lung ailments.

Ellsworth Kelly American, 1923-2015;<br>East River, 1959. Art Institute of Chicago |<br>© Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly American, 1923-2015;
East River, 1959. Art Institute of Chicago |
© Ellsworth Kelly

Born in Newburgh in New York’s Hudson Valley in 1923, Mr. Kelly grew up in New Jersey and enrolled in art school in New York City in 1941. He left school during World War II, when he painted camouflage patterns on fake tanks and other military objects produced by a special Army unit to deceive the Germans. Among his comrades was Bill Blass, the future fashion designer.

Mr. Kelly’s colorful “Chicago Panels, 1989-1999” are part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, which also boasts a large collection of his collages, drawings, painting and sculptures. The panels hang in the second floor galleries of modern American Art in the Rice Building (see video below). The panels were commissioned specifically for the space. The Modern Wing’s Pritzker Garden features “White Curve,” a 2009 commission for that space.

“We have 12 works of art from our permanent collection by Ellsworth Kelly on display right now,” said AIC spokesperson Amanda Hicks. “As part of The New Contemporary installation that opened December 13 in the second floor galleries of the Modern Wing, there is an entire room featuring Ellsworth Kelly’s works.”

One of the six painted aluminum panels that comprise “The Chicago Panels” at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Ellsworth Kelly. | The Art Institute of Chicago. Harold L. Stuart Endowment, © Ellsworth Kelly
One of the six painted aluminum panels that comprise “The Chicago Panels” at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Ellsworth Kelly. | The Art Institute of Chicago. Harold L. Stuart Endowment, © Ellsworth Kelly

Mr. Kelly moved to Paris after the war to study art. He returned to New York in the mid-1950s to begin creating the boldly colored geometric paintings that were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, as well as in museums and galleries across the United States and Europe.

During a 1970 trip to upstate New York to scout locations for another studio, he found a vacant second-floor space with 12-foot windows in a Victorian building in the village of Chatham. It was there he would create one of his signature works, “The Chatham Series,” 14 L-shaped monochrome panels that were first displayed in 1972 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.

He later built a new studio on property a few miles away in Spencertown, near the Massachusetts border. He lived there with his longtime partner Jack Spear, a photographer and collector.

Ellsworth Kelly. White Curve, 2009. | The Art Institute of Chicago. © Ellsworth Kelly.
Ellsworth Kelly. White Curve, 2009. | The Art Institute of Chicago. © Ellsworth Kelly.

Art dealer Matthew Marks, who has sold and exhibited Mr. Kelly’s work since the early 1990s, said the artist was still in demand and thus creating right up to the end, with various paintings and sculptures in the works.

“He was amazing,” Marks said. “It’s like he kept getting better and better.”

In July 2013, Kelly was one of 24 recipients of the National Medal of Arts bestowed during a White House ceremony with President Barack Obama.

Associated Press; Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio, Chicago Sun-Times

Ellsworth Kelly<br>American, 1923-2015<br>Red Yellow Blue White and Black, 1953. Art Institute of Chicago|<br>© Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
American, 1923-2015
Red Yellow Blue White and Black, 1953. Art Institute of Chicago|
© Ellsworth Kelly