Ellsworth Kelly

Artist and 2012 National Medal of Arts Recipient
Ellsworth Kelly
Photo by Jack Shear

Music Credit:  Excerpts from "My Luck"  by Broke For Free from the EP Directionless, used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WFMU's Free Music Archive. 


Ellsworth Kelly: Words have never been my specialty ‘cause when I was growing up, I happened to have a slight speech problem.  So, I grew up always trying not to talk.  I was always sort of an A-B student, but I dreaded getting up to speak and with age, you adapt and relax and realize life's not as terrible as it seemed. I mean I had a good childhood, but still, the business of communication was always difficult. 

Jo Reed: That is the great American artist and 2012 national Medal of Arts recipient, Ellsworth Kelly and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the most celebrated and widely influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century. When he received the National medal of Arts from President Obama, Ellsworth Kelly's citation read, in part: "A careful observer of form, color, and the natural world, Mr. Kelly has shaped more than half a century of abstraction and remains a vital influence in American art."

Born in 1923, Kelly was born in New Jersey and studied art and design at Pratt Institute before he enlisted to serve in the army during World War 2. At the war's end, Kelly used the G.I. Bill to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He then moved to Europe ostensibly to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but after two days, he decided that he was done with art school and instead he immersed himself in the culture of France. And that's where I began my conversation with Ellsworth Kelly. We met in a Washington DC hotel, right before the National Medal of Arts Ceremony and you may occasionally hear the sound of the portable oxygen tank that is always with him. Here's Ellsworth, talking about his days in Paris after the war.

Ellsworth Kelly: It was strange. I didn't know French but, I got along and felt very free in Paris. 
This is 1948. It was right after the war and I made friends in Europe and lived there six years. 

Jo Reed: And you did a lot of painting while you were in Paris.

Ellsworth Kelly:  Yeah. Oh, yeah. I had discovered something that I could do that was different. See, in school, in Boston, I had a teacher that we only painted the nude. In the afternoon, we drew from the nude. But in doing that, you learned more or less how to apply paint and make a picture. So, when I got to Paris, I said, “Well, what am I going to do here?” French art was very personal. I mean I felt like Picasso, Matisse and very personal and was figurative. And so, I became fascinated with the School of Paris painting. It was like Picasso was on your back really. That's what I felt when I was saying “personal.” I said that somehow, I wanted to be impersonal. And I wanted to present color and form so that it was a visual thing and I feel that the art of observation was very necessary for that, to present pure color. And that was the beginning because I said after a few months, "I don't want to do what I've seen". I want to do something that I haven't seen, meaning I wanted to turn to abstraction. And that was a steady workout all six years. So, I had discovered I did some very good work there that now is in museums, but when I got back to New York, color was my strong point and color in the spectral way if you see the rainbow or a spectrum. It meant using all the colors, liking all the colors, not having any color dislikes. And when I came back, I had developed doing work on panels; in some way, making the art object. I called it a tableau objet and I felt that the form of the painting was the form and the ground was the wall. I used the wall in titles of works, like “Colors for a Large Wall.”

Jo Reed: What was happening in the New York art world when you returned?

Ellsworth Kelly: When I came back to New York, it was the height of the abstract impressionists with Pollock and De Mooning and Rothko and Barnett Newman still were the big men. And in Europe in the early ‘50s, there were no magazines. And so, I didn't know what was going on in New York and I felt when I came back it was all gesture. And so, I had to really continue. I mean what else could I do? I think that I started something in Paris and I've just continued. My whole say 70 years of painting has been a continuation of development and the new work I feel I couldn't do it unless I've done all the work that I've done before and perhaps any artist can say that. So, all those paintings were a foundation which I felt like I had been for me on the cutting edge of developing something that was very personal, but in an impersonal way. And I used to say, "I want to take the I out of painting".

Jo Reed: Well the thing that's so impressive, that is noteworthy about your work, many things, but you look at a piece of yours and you know that this is Ellsworth Kelly's work. Yet, it is without narcissism and that is a feat.

Ellsworth Kelly: I liked what you said about that because no one's ever said that to me. But, you did catch the fact that what I went through with the impersonality. I said, “I didn't want to sign my pictures.” I signed them on the back. And I said that I just want to develop with chance. I know I read all about and saw, exhibited a lot of the surrealists, which interested me because of what they did, and the Dadaists. And chance came up and fortunately, and one day I met John Cage who was staying at the same hotel for a week or so.

Jo Reed:  And this was before you return to New York, when you were in Paris.

Ellsworth Kelly:  Oh, yeah. This is the first year, in 1949. And I didn't know who he was. A friend of mine came in who was always looking at the book down in the lobby of the hotel and said, “Oh, you have some interesting guests here, Merce Cunningham and John Cage.” And the next day as I was leaving the hotel, I heard someone behind me saying, “Oh, hello there” and I turned around and it was John. He said, “I see you coming out of the hotel. What are you doing?” Well, I said, “I'm painting." And he said, “Oh, I want to see what you're doing.” So, that was the first time that anybody, like a stranger, would show some interest and as if it was a way life, being a painter. And I took my paintings, which I was just starting to do. This was in May of '49. So, I just was getting settled and they liked the paintings and then they left. They came back I guess six or eight months later just to touch base with Paris again. And I didn't know very much about his method then, the business of chance and it was before John was really getting into chance I think. So, I didn't really talk very much, but I think the fact that they were so wonderful together and they showed interest and I liked their spirit. I probably just caught the spirit ‘cause then I wrote to John. I don't know if you've seen that letter.

Jo Reed:  I don't. I haven't, no.

Ellsworth Kelly:  I sent him some photographs and one of the lines was, “The hell with pictures. They should be on walls.” But anyway, chance had a lot to do with choosing the colors. The big thing was cutting up a painting in to panels and rearranging them, the colors, by chance. So, I had a different color theory I suppose that I got from Europe, like starting with the Fauves with Matisse and Brach, doing very colorful paintings and then in 1910, I guess, Kandinsky was working at the same time Picasso and Brach were doing all their cubism. So, when I came back, I had a show in '56 with Betty Parsons and it was almost completely ignored.  So, I had to fight to do what I wanted to do. I continued to do a few panel pictures, paintings made up of different panels, but most of the work I did in the late-‘50s was color not in say on one canvas, sort of the form and ground, the shape and two or three shapes.

Jo Reed: And shadowing.

Ellsworth Kelly: Yeah.  Well, the shadows, of course, was part of the chance. There was one painting in San Francisco; it was called “Cite”. It was made up of 20 panels and on each panel, there are black stripes. And when I did that, I know I showed it in Paris right after I did it in 1951, and the dealer thought it was too lively. It was a very good gallery. It was called the Gallery Maeght. And so, the curator of the gallery stood with me and said, “No, we've got to show this.” And then all the young painters came to the show and they said, “Oh, this is the best picture in Paris at the moment.” And I knew that I had done something quite different because it was kind of an object. And then, I started working with the Seine River. I lived on the Ile Saint-Louis and every night when I would come back, I would see the lights from the bridge flickering on the water and I said, “I want to get that in a picture and I don't want to do a pointless picture.” So, I decided to do it by chance and I made a grid, a huge grid in black and white and pulled out the first column, one little rectangle; the second column, two, three, four, five, six until in the middle it was all black. And then, I continued the other side. So, that was very important because I captured the chance choice of where the marks went and I developed that right away into color with 18 different hues of color.

Jo Reed:  And that's Spectrum Arranged by Chance.

Ellsworth Kelly: The first Spectrum was 1953 and then when I came back, I felt like people weren't using color strongly. I mean Barnett Newman was, but he would use maybe dark blue or dark red sometimes. But, the other expressionists, the color was always mixed colors, not very strong. So, I think that the big sculpture which I did in '56 was the summation of what I had done in Europe.
Jo Reed: You mean the Sculpture for a Large Wall?

Ellsworth Kelly: Luckily, the pop artists brought color into yeah. So, slowly people have warmed up to what my painting was and right now, I guess there has been, because of my age, for the 90th birthday--

Jo Reed:  You're having shows all over.

Ellsworth Kelly: Yeah. This is very difficult to express. When I do a painting, it has to mean something to me. And when I look at art, I use that same judgment and I see a lot of the abstraction is just decorative. I don't feel the sense that this has to be. That may be hard for other people to see but, I think that when an idea comes to me, it's sort of like a flash. I've done quite a bit of sculpture in the last few years and this gentleman he invited me to his property, and he said, "I want you to do something here." And he's a big collector and has a lot of sculptures in his properties. And so I said to myself, "I have to wait until something comes to me." And I kept thinking, "I'm not going to start drawing or not going to start trying to find something." After weeks, weeks, all of a sudden, I said "Yes." There's a panel quite big. The whole thing is 30 feet. This goes up at an angle. And then, this one goes shooting out. And, I mean, it's just so simple that I saw it.

Jo Reed: And did you use color with this?

Ellsworth Kelly: It's white.

Jo Reed:  It's white.

Ellsworth Kelly:  Yeah. The large pieces I've been doing recently, there's one at Beveller in Basel. And then, three other white sculptures happened and they're all quite large, and all white. And to have steel quite heavy, come out of the ground and go this way. And then, to hold on to this, this has to be much lighter but it looks like the same. You have to see it, though, I guess. I mean, it is about perception and how I say you have to feel something for it. , I guess, what would you say; my whole oeuvre is to be positive and clear. You know, you think about the Renaissance and how, I mean, read a lot about the Renaissance and history and all the wars. But there was such great painting done at that time. And we're living in really quite difficult times now. I mean, you're living here in Washington?

Jo Reed: Yes.

Ellsworth Kelly: Yeah. So, I somehow feel like, I do read political things, but I feel like it's very difficult for an artist who's doing something that is, say, a luxury and also something that is part of our culture and has nothing to do with, you know, everyday problems.

Jo Reed: Jo Reed:  But it's "Bread and Roses," no?
Ellsworth Kelly:  Pardon?

Jo Reed:  "Bread and Roses." It's the old union song. "We need bread, but we need roses, too."

Ellsworth Kelly:  Yeah. That's very good. Yes.

Jo Reed: I know you've just been to the Barnes Museum to see some of your work. When you look at your work again, do you see it with new eyes?

Ellsworth Kelly: Well, I have several sculptures at Barnes and there's a very large red curve. And when I looked at it, I was with some friends, and I said, "That's a lot of red on the wall." And I think that's what, large curve and it comes down like a fan, in a way, and I think that that was the push I had is I wanted somehow to get that out of me. You know, I think that Matisse had said something about that, too, that he felt that he was just the man who made it. But how did he say it? That you're kind of a medium.

Jo Reed:  Like a conduit?

Ellsworth Kelly:  Yes, a conduit. Yes, of course.

Jo Reed:  I'm curious about when you moved off the wall? Because the wall had been so important. As you said, it was the field for your painting. But then, with the Gate Series, you moved off the wall?

Ellsworth Kelly:  Yeah. When I started before in Paris, the early things were all reliefs. And I had been traveling all through France. Romanesque and Byzantine work influenced me very much. And so a lot of the early cloisters in the south of France are beautiful buildings. The sculptural quality of those buildings, I wanted to capture that as well because I feel that early work, the very, say, early Greek and early Egyptian, early Chinese, the Cyclad's very early pieces, all those things had spiritual quality. And, I guess, I'm not religious, but I feel that I want to do something that has some spiritual quality. I mean, that comes by itself, I guess. I'm not religious. I don't preach or anything about, but when I make the work, I feel like I am a kind of-- what do you call me?

Jo Reed: A conduit.

Ellsworth Kelly:  A conduit. And it makes me very critical.

Jo Reed:  Of your own work or of other art?

Ellsworth Kelly:  Of other art, yeah. But it sets me apart, I suppose. But I think, now, because I'm not one of the hotshots and they're getting enormous prices in the millions and millions of dollars, you know. And I always felt like money is not really involved in art, but it has become very, very important. But I feel like I'm the old school in a way. I mean, I feel like I still love the School of Paris, like Brancusi and Mondrian and all those painters. I got to know several when I lived in France. And in a way, I'm saying I'm painting for them because, you know, you realize how important Picasso and Braque and Mondrian were.

Jo Reed: Do you feel like you're engaged in a conversation with them, almost? Like they made a statement and you're talking with them.

Ellsworth Kelly:  Yeah. Well, I find they're like father figures, in some way.

Jo Reed:  I'm curious about Brancusi, because I'm a great, great fan.

Ellsworth Kelly:  Oh, yeah. Well, I went to see him. One day I called up, this was probably '51, maybe? And he answered the phone. And he said, "Who are you? What do you want?" You know, and I said, "I'd like to know if I could come see you and see your work?" And he said, "Thursday at two o'clock," hung up. He had Thursday's afternoons for anyone that came. So, I went with two of my friends, two painters. And there were a few other people there, but he liked us. We were young artists. And I remember he was all dressed in white. And at one point, he sat down and said, "Come over here and we'll talk." And it was such purity in there. You know, I mean, the form of his works and the way he had done it. You know, he was a master and I certainly was influenced by that group of artists. When we left, he had tears in his eyes. And he said, "Boys, you don't have to leave." You know, because he was lonely. And he died, probably; I think a few years after that. It was like seeing a saint. You know, he was funny. And there was a photograph that he had there. It was a photograph; it was a piece of a branch of a tree. And he said that when he was ill, he had asked a friend to bring him this piece of wood. And then, someone asked me, "What was the lesson that he taught you?" And I said, "Well, when I left, he said, 'Get a piece of wood and contemplate it.'"

Jo Reed: Well, you've been doing that with plants. But you had been doing that since you were a kid.

Ellsworth Kelly:  Oh, it's a plant. Yeah. Well, the plant drawings are drawing, you see. And I had a very good drawing teacher in Boston. And he took me in hand because he liked what I was drawing but he said, "You can't see, really." And he would take a pencil and make three lines. And make, he said, "Your shoulder's flat. You don't see it right." And here, it became a shoulder. And I said, "How did you do that?" And he said, "I'm going to teach you how to see. And when you can see, you can draw anything." So, I love to draw and I've done a lot of drawings of people, which I've never shown, because that was Boston. I had friends and I used to draw constantly. And I went to Paris and I had to draw. So I think I began doing plants when I went out to Brittany and spent a summer. I started doing some plants and seaweeds. And then, I came back, and I started drawing plants in '57. I grew plants and drew them. And I said, "It's good to have a subject that's changeable that I could continue keeping my hand in." And so I would draw daily, you know. And I think drawing, over a period of time, with what that teacher taught me, that I wasn't inventing. I was drawing flat leaves, like one leaf is in front of another one and then, another one is here. And he said, "You have to think of overlaps and how you build up, like a collage." Like Picasso and Braque were doing with collage work. And I've done an awful lot of collages all my life in studies for paintings.

Jo Reed: I mean we've covered a lot of ground here. Is there anything you want to talk about?

Ellsworth Kelly: Well, I think that one thing that I would like to talk about is about when I was a child. I was ill for a while and my grandmother and my mother gave me a bird book. And when I got well, I went out to the pine forest behind the house and began being a bird watcher. And the first bird was a little redstart, which is very small, a warbler and black with red bars on his wings. And I said, "I don't need abstraction. That's my abstraction." You know, they're like objects beautifully colored. And I think my colors started with that. And the other thing I wanted to mention was that when Pollock or De Kooning made a painting, they found the painting by doing it. By doing it, by making it. And we used to have something to say about when did they know when to stop? You know, you always have to have a man behind you with a hammer. But I don't find pictures that way. I find them with these ideas I have and development over what I've done before. And I have to plan it. I plan it with drawings and collage. And then, for instance, the sketches are different. So I have to know what I need. So I work it all out. And then, I make the painting. And getting to know the painting is different than the small collage or drawings. And now that I'm older and I look back at early things, some of those early things, I wasn't able to paint. And there was one painting in the Alco, which was white, black and red, in panels. That was an early collage. That was maybe in the '50s or the '60s. And I've been going through them. And all of a sudden, I say, "Oh, I can do that now. I mean, now I'm allowed to do it." There's a collage I did in 1962 in my last show with Matthew Mark. It's a collage of two small orange curves at the bottom of a large gold panel, gold paint. And it's been a great success. Everyone talks about it and I'd done that in '62. And I liked it. But I wasn't able to paint it then. And since I've been doing relief works, one panel on another, that I wanted a real object. I didn't want a copy.

Jo Reed: Or the illusion of an object.

Ellsworth Kelly: Yeah, illusion, yeah. So I had to get to the point where I said, "All painting has been an illusion." Like the Renaissance painting, it's all on one canvas. It's like a window that you're looking out of. And then, that led me to think that, that lasted until Mr. Cezanne and Monet. They began to upset the surface. So the content really in Cezanne was how your eye goes to how he did it on the surface. And he wasn't a mirror of a landscape. But he was doing a painting of marks. So with Monet, too, and especially his late paintings, which I went to the studio in '52 and saw all those late large paintings. The next day I went back to my studio and I had done panels in five different colors. And that was a turning point to me when I had gone to the south of France. And then, I said, "I wonder if I can do a painting in monochrome in one canvas or one board?" I think I had a wooden board. So I painted a green panel, because Monet did all his water lilies and grass underwater. And then, I looked at it and said, this was '52, you know, and I said, "Oh, it doesn't mean anything." I wrapped it up. And I didn't look at it again until sometime in the '80s. I mean, 30 years it was all wrapped up. And I was invited to a show in France, Leon, of the color [27:04]. And so he was talking about, he wanted to borrow, he borrowed eight pictures of mine for the show. And then, somehow or other, I remembered that I had done this one panel, so I unwrapped it. And I sent him a slide of it. I call it, "Tableau vert" And he wrote back and said, "Oh, we'll put this in the historical section." Because it's really one of the first monochromes. I think a lot of people do monochromes that are rectangles now. There's a lot of monochrome painting, different ways of painting it. But I think it has to have some shape, as well, to make it interesting for me to do it.

Are we getting close?

Jo Reed:  We are. We really do need to stop now and I'm so sorry we do because I'm just loving this conversation.

Ellsworth Kelly: Is it ok?

Jo Reed: It is wonderful. Thank you.

Ellsworth Kelly: And thank you for your questions.

Jo Reed: Thank you so much.

That was 2012 National Medal of Arts recipient, artist Ellsworth Kelly. The White House has just announced the 2013 Medalists. They include authors Julia Alvarez and Maxine Hong Kingston. Check out their podcasts at arts.gov and click on National Medal of Arts.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Next week, the director of the Young People's Chorus and MacArthur genius Grant recipient, Francisco Nunez.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Ellsworth Kelly: the gloriousness of color and form.