Biography of Ellsworth Kelly, Minimalist Artist

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Ellsworth Kelly (May 31, 1923–December 27, 2015) was an American artist who played a key role in the development of minimalist art in the U.S. He was also associated with hard-edge painting and Color Field painting. Kelly is best-known for his single color "shaped" canvases that went beyond the typical square or rectangular shapes. He also produced sculpture and prints throughout his career.

Fast Facts: Ellsworth Kelly

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: May 31, 1923 in Newburgh, New York
  • Died: December 27, 2015 in Spencertown, New York
  • Education: Pratt Institute, School of the Museum of Fine Arts
  • Selected Works: "Red Blue Green" (1963), "White Curve" (2009), "Austin" (2015)
  • Notable Quote: "The negative is just as important as the positive."

Early Life and Education

Born in Newburgh, New York, Ellsworth Kelly was the second of three sons of insurance company executive Allan Howe Kelly and former schoolteacher Florence Githens Kelly. He grew up in the small town of Oradell, New Jersey. Kelly's paternal grandmother introduced him to birding when he was eight or nine years old. The work of legendary ornithologist John James Audubon would influence Kelly throughout his career.

Ellsworth Kelly attended public schools, where he excelled in his art classes. His parents were reluctant to encourage Kelly's artistic inclinations, but a teacher supported his interest. Kelly enrolled in the Pratt Institute's arts programs in 1941. He studied there until his induction into the U.S. Army on January 1, 1943.

Military Service and Early Art Career

During World War II, Ellsworth Kelly served with other artists and designers in a unit called The Ghost Army. They created inflatable tanks, sound trucks, and fake radio transmissions to deceive the enemy on the battlefield. Kelly served with the unit in the European Theater of the war.

Exposure to camouflage in the war influenced Kelly's developing aesthetic. He was interested in the use of form and shadow and the ability of camouflage to hide items in plain sight.

After the end of World War II, Kelly used funds from the G.I. Bill to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Later, he attended the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. There, he met other Americans such as avant-garde composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. He also associated with French Surrealist artist Jean Arp and Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The latter's use of simplified forms had a profound effect on Kelly's developing style.

Ellsworth Kelly said that a key development of his painting style while in Paris was figuring out what he didn't want in a painting: "[I] just kept throwing things out, like marks, lines and the painted edge." His personal discovery of Claude Monet's brightly-colored late-career works in 1952 inspired Kelly to explore even more freedom in his own painting.

Kelly made strong connections with fellow artists in Paris, but his work was not selling when he left to return to the U.S. in 1954 and settled in Manhattan. At first, Americans seemed somewhat mystified by Kelly's minimalist canvases of bright colors and geometric shapes. According to Kelly, the French told him he was too American, and the Americans said he was too French.

Kelly's first solo show took place at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1956. In 1959, the Museum of Modern Art included Kelly in their landmark exhibition 16 Americans alongside Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg among others. His reputation grew quickly.

Painting Style and Minimalism

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ellsworth Kelly showed no interest in expressing emotion, creating concepts, or telling a story with his art. Instead, he was interested in what happened in the act of viewing. He was curious about the space between the painting and the person looking at it. He eventually abandoned the constraints of typical square or rectangular canvases in the 1960s. Instead, he used a variety of shapes. Kelly called them shaped canvases. Because he used only isolated bright colors and simple shapes, his work was considered part of Minimalism.

In 1970, Ellsworth Kelly moved out of Manhattan. He wanted to escape a busy social life that was eating into his time producing art. He built a 20,000 square foot compound three hours north in Spencertown, New York. Architect Richard Gluckman designed the building. It included a studio, office, library, and archive. Kelly lived and worked there until his death in 2015. During the 1970s, Kelly began incorporating more curves in his work and the shapes of his canvases.

By the early 1970s, Ellsworth Kelly was prominent enough in American art to be the subject of major retrospectives. The Museum of Modern Art hosted its first Kelly retrospective in 1973. Ellsworth Kelly Recent Paintings and Sculpture followed in 1979. Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective traveled in the U.S., the U.K., and Germany in 1996.

Kelly also worked on sculpture in steel, aluminum, and bronze. His sculptural pieces are as minimal as his paintings. They are mostly concerned with simplicity in form. The sculptures are designed to be seen quickly, sometimes in a single glance.

Ellsworth Kelly's final art project was a 2,700-square-foot building influenced by Romanesque churches that he never saw in its completed form. Named "Austin," it stands in Austin, Texas as part of the Blanton Museum's permanent collection and opened to the public in February 2018. Facades of the building include blown-glass windows in simple colors that reflect Kelly's life work.

Personal Life

Ellsworth Kelly was known as a shy man in his personal life. He had a stutter as a child and became a self-described "loner." For the last 28 years of his life, Kelly lived with his partner, photographer Jack Shear. Shear became director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

Legacy and Influence

In 1957, Ellsworth Kelly received his first public commission to create a 65-foot-long sculpture titled "Sculpture for a Large Wall" for the Transportation Building at Penn Center in Philadelphia. It was his largest work yet. That piece was eventually dismantled, but a wide range of public sculpture still exists as part of Kelly's legacy.

Some of his best-known public artworks include:

  • "Curve XXII (I Will)" (1981), Lincoln Park in Chicago
  • "Blue Black" (2001), Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis
  • "White Curve" (2009), Art Institute of Chicago

Kelly's work is seen as a forerunner of artists like Dan Flavin and Richard Serra. Their pieces are also focused on the experience of viewing art instead of trying to convey a specific concept.


  • Paik, Tricia. Ellsworth Kelly. Phaidon Press, 2015.
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Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Ellsworth Kelly, Minimalist Artist." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Lamb, Bill. (2020, August 28). Biography of Ellsworth Kelly, Minimalist Artist. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Ellsworth Kelly, Minimalist Artist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).