In 1951, the 28-year-old artist Ellsworth Kelly submitted a grant to the Guggenheim Foundation, proposing “an alphabet of plastic pictorial elements, aiming to establish a new scale of painting, a closer contact between the artist and the wall, providing a way for painting to accompany modern architecture.” Though the application was rejected, the project came to fruition in the series of drawings known as Line Form Color. Kelly’s six-decade career constituted just such a repertory of plastic forms, investigated across works on paper, painting, and architecturally sensitive sculpture.
Born in Newburgh, New York, Kelly served in the military during World War II, allowing him to study art in Boston and Paris on the GI Bill through the mid-to-late 1940s. In Paris, he absorbed the lessons of Byzantine icons and Romanesque frescoes, Jean Arp’s experiments with chance and Henri Matisse’s economical line, all of which helped him develop his own artistic language. Rather than composing, he began “choosing things out there in the world and presenting them,” adopting the forms of a window, some awnings, or the shadows of a staircase, and offering them as apparent abstractions. The result was a language both personal (keyed to Kelly’s particular eye) and universal (presented without alteration or comment).
Upon returning to New York in 1954, and settling two years later in the downtown Coenties Slip community of artists that included Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, Agnes Martin, and Lenore Tawney, Kelly deepened his exploration of dimensionality and expanded his scale. In a painting like Two Blacks, White and Blue, in which each hue in the title corresponds to a discrete panel, color and construction become one. And in an installation like the 65-foot, painted aluminum Sculpture for a Large Wall, commissioned for the lobby of Philadelphia’s Transportation Center, he was able to work in a truly architectural mode, scaling the work to its site.
In 1970, Kelly moved into the Spencertown, New York, farmhouse that would remain his primary residence for the rest of his life. His first series of paintings executed in upstate New York was the Chatham Series—named for the nearby town in which he made them in a spacious former-theater-turned-studio. For these human-scaled inverted ells, each composed of two joined panels, Kelly spoke of concentrating on “the space between the picture and the viewer,” emphasizing relationships not only within the work, but beyond it. This particular combination of simple forms was both new to his repertory as well as an organic extension of the rudiments proposed in Line Form Color decades before—a testament to the simultaneous consistency and innovation of his lifelong project.
Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2021