2:59am

Thu July 11, 2013
Fine Art

At 90, Ellsworth Kelly Brings Joy With Colorful Canvases

Originally published on Thu July 18, 2013 4:52 pm

American artist Ellsworth Kelly turned 90 in May, and there's been much celebration. On Wednesday, President Obama presented Kelly with the National Medal of Arts. Meanwhile, museums around the country are showing his work: Kelly sculptures, prints and paintings are on view in New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. In Washington, D.C., the Phillips Collection is featuring his flat geometric canvases, layered to create wall sculptures.

These Kelly works seem baffling at first, maybe scoff-worthy — simple, solid canvases of color. But if you crouch and bend to inspect the shadows that the combinations of canvases cast on the gallery walls, you can start having fun with them.

At the Phillips Collection, museum director Dorothy Kosinski does exactly that. "With the shadows he introduces maybe another color, a gray, and certainly another dimension," Kosinski says. "It almost reads like a box."

The Phillips is showing seven Kelly works, each featuring multiple canvases painted in solid, bright colors. One piece has four separate panels in a row: a green rectangle, a blue rectangle, a black square, a red-orange square. Kosinski, who says Kelly is one of the major 20th century American painters, sees perfection in these panels.

"The entire wall becomes part of a very demanding, rigorous and yet terrifically exuberant composition," she says. "Isn't it exuberant?" Indeed, the gallery feels cheerful — and, at the same time, serene.

Kelly himself was not feeling so cheerful the day museum director Kosinski spoke of exuberance. He'd been at a Phillips dinner the night before, felt ill the next morning, and went back home to Spencertown, N.Y. He missed the 90th-birthday party the museum put together, with champagne, birthday cake and the obligatory birthday song.

A week later, by phone, Kelly was reluctant to discuss his art: "I don't really talk about my work unless I'm with it," he says. But he agrees to discuss someone else's artwork — a famous Renoir, reproduced in a big Phillips Collection art book.

"I'm trying to find it," Kelly says. "It's after the Matisse, I think, isn't it? ... I have to put my glasses on."

Renoir's joyful, jubilant The Luncheon of the Boating Party, from 1881, is the Phillips Collection's best-loved work. In it, sun-dappled men and women finish off a delicious meal, and wine, on a riverside porch.

"The happiness that [Renoir] was able to get into the picture is very visible," Kelly says. "I don't know if Americans have painted a picture quite like this."

As a very young artist, Kelly tried painting like Renoir and others — real-life scenes, people, landscapes. In the 1950s he shifted to his crisp abstract shapes: no narratives, nothing going on but color.

"I learned my color in Europe," Kelly says. "I've always been a colorist, I think. I started when I was very young, being a bird-watcher, fascinated by the bird colors."

Kelly came back from studying in Paris with a series of flat, geometric panels in the color spectrum — the colors you see when light hits a prism.

"Each color had to have its own canvas. ... I feel that I like color in its strongest sense," Kelly says. "I don't like mixed colors that much, like plum color or deep, deep colors that are hard to define. I liked red, yellow, blue, black and white — [that] was what I started with."

And he's still at it. Kelly has been making his layered, flat-colored, geometric panels for 60 years now. When he began, other young artists were busy with abstract expressionism; Jackson Pollock, with his ropes of thick paint, was the man of the moment. Kelly — well, he was not.

"It was a very hard job doing it all myself, getting to where I am," he says. "And I'm still continuing that exploration of color and form."

Kelly didn't get attention until the 1960s, when pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein came along with their strong, clear colors. His persistence over the years has had a sweet goal: "I've always wanted ... I wanted to give people joy," he says.

His art gives him joy, too — when asked to name the best thing about being 90, he mentions his work. "I feel like I'm 20 in my head," he says. "My painting makes me feel good, but my body is not the same as it was when I was 20, 40 or 60. I just feel like I can live on. I hope I can reach 100. I think today if you just keep doing, keep working, that — maybe that's possible."

By the time the Phillips show closes in September, it's a good bet that in his upstate New York studio, Ellsworth Kelly will have produced more new — and often joy-giving — works.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

American artist Ellsworth Kelly turned 90 last May, and there's been much celebration. President Obama, yesterday, presented him with the National Medal of Arts. Museums across the country are showing his work; sculptures, prints, paintings on view in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit. In Washington, D.C., the Phillips Collection is featuring his flat geometric canvases, often layered one canvas on top of another.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg found the work baffling then boisterous.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: At a gallery in Los Angeles last winter, a friend and I shrugged - OK, maybe scoffed - at the Kellys. And then began crouching and bending to inspect the shadows that his layerings cast on the gallery walls. It was fun.

At the Phillips Collection the other day, museum director Dorothy Kosinski and I did the same thing.

DOROTHY KOSINKSKI: With the shadows he introduces maybe another color, a gray, and certainly another dimension.

STAMBERG: And the shadow it casts dark and light gray it's two-toned.

KOSINKSKI: And almost reads like a box, doesn't it? How did he achieve that?

STAMBERG: The Phillips is showing seven Kelly works. At each end of the gallery, big black and white pieces, white rectangle layered like a sandwich at a slight angle on top of a black square. On another wall, a big Square covered in yellow oil paint, with a skinny red rectangle along its top. Four separate panels on the opposite wall: small horizontal green rectangle, blue vertical rectangle, black square, smaller orange/red square.

Dorothy Kosinski says Kelly is one of the major 20th century American painters. She sees perfection in these panels.

KOSINKSKI: The entire wall becomes part of a very demanding, rigorous and yet terrifically exuberant composition. Isn't it exuberant?

STAMBERG: I walked into this room and thought, ah, its so cheerful.

KOSINKSKI: Yeah.

STAMBERG: And also I felt serene in it.

KOSINKSKI: I think those are beautiful thoughts to have.

STAMBERG: Ellsworth Kelly was not feeling so cheerful that day. He had been at a Phillips' dinner the night before, felt ill the next morning, and went back home to Spencertown, New York. So he missed the little 90th birthday party the museum put together - champagne, birthday cake, brave singing.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Ellsworth. Happy birthday...

STAMBERG: I caught up with him a week later, by phone.

ELLSWORTH KELLY: I don't really talk about my work unless I'm with it.

STAMBERG: Well, he will in a bit. But we began with someone else's work. I asked him to look through a book for a famous Renoir.

KELLY: I'm trying to find it. No, here. It's after the Matisse, I think, isn't it?

STAMBERG: It's Page 109.

KELLY: I have to put my glasses on. OK.

STAMBERG: Renoir's joyful, jubilant "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" from 1881, it's the Phillip's best-loved work; sun-dappled men and women, finishing off a delicious meal and wine on a riverside porch.

KELLY: The happiness that he was able to get in to the picture is very visible. I don't know if Americans have painted a picture quite like this.

STAMBERG: You know, at the Phillips, Dorothy Kosinski and I walked into the room with your painting and we both agreed that they made us feel very happy. She used the word exuberant.

KELLY: Well, that's wonderful.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: As a very young artist, Ellsworth Kelly tried painting like Renoir and others, real life scenes - people, landscapes. He shifted in the 1950s to his crisp abstract shapes - no narratives, nothing going on but color.

KELLY: I learned my color in Europe. I've always been a colorist, I think. I started when I was very young, being a bird watcher, fascinated by the bird colors.

STAMBERG: Kelly came back from studies in Paris with a series of flat, geometric panels in the color spectrum - the rainbow colors that you see when light hits a prism,

KELLY: Each color had to have its own canvas. I feel I like color in its strongest sense. I don't like mixed colors that much, like plum colors or deep, deep colors that are hard to define. I liked red, yellow, blue, black and white, was what I started with.

STAMBERG: And he's still at it. Ellsworth Kelly has been making his layered, flat-colored, geometric panels for 60 years now. When he began, other young artists were busy with abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollack and his ropes of thick paint was the man of the moment. Kelly was not.

KELLY: There was absolutely no response for a long time. It was a very hard job, doing it all myself, getting to where I am.

STAMBERG: It wasn't until the 1960s when the pop artists - Warhol, Lichtenstein - came along, with their strong, clear colors, that Ellsworth Kelly got attention. His persistence over the years has a sweet goal.

KELLY: I've always wanted to feel like I wanted to give people joy. And I like the fact that you say when you came to see the show at the Phillips that you felt like I want you to feel.

STAMBERG: Tell us what is the best thing about being 90.

KELLY: Oh, dear.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I feel like I'm 20 in my head. My paintings make me feel good. But my body is not the same as it was when I was 20, 40 or 60. And I just feel like I can live on. I hope I can reach a hundred. I think today if you just keep doing, keep working that maybe that's possible.

STAMBERG: By the time the Phillips show closes in September, it's a good bet that in his Upstate New York studio Ellsworth Kelly will have produced more new, and often joy-giving works.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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