Ellsworth Kelly, "The Barnes Totem" (2012) (all photos by the author unless indicated otherwise)

Ellsworth Kelly, “The Barnes Totem” (2012) (all photos by the author unless indicated otherwise)

Ellsworth Kelly, one of the most strident pioneers of abstraction and minimalism in the United States from the 1950s onward, has died at age 92. He passed away on Sunday at home, in Spencertown, New York, according to the New York Times.

Known for using the simplest of shapes and juxtapositions of saturated, monochromatic colors to conjure landscapes, human, and manmade forms, Kelly synthesized elements of sculpture, architecture, and painting in a way that often seemed both masterful and effortless. His works are in the collections of most major museums, he had his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1973, in 1996 the Guggenheim held a major Kelly retrospective, and he remained active up to his death — his most recent exhibition with his New York gallery, Matthew Marks, closed just six months ago.

Ellsworth Kelly in front of a row of his paintings at Matthew Marks Gallery (screenshot by the author via @MatthewMarks/Twitter)

Ellsworth Kelly in front of a row of his paintings at Matthew Marks Gallery (screenshot by the author via @MatthewMarks/Twitter) (click to enlarge)

Born in Newburgh, New York, Kelly spent most of his childhood in New Jersey and, in 1941, enrolled at Pratt Institute, though his artistic education would really begin two years later when he joined the US Army. He became a camouflage artist and was one of the members of the so-called Ghost Army unit, which created decoys and distractions to mislead Axis forces during World War II. Thanks to the GI Bill, he was able to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston upon his return to the US, and eventually move to Paris, where he studied at the École des beaux-arts and quickly became immersed in the city’s post-war avant-garde. In Kelly’s five years in Paris he met many French and expat artists whose influences on his work would endure for decades, including Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and Alexander Calder.

“In Paris in the late 1940s, I started making my first reliefs,” Kelly told actress Gwyneth Paltrow in a 2011 interview. “I wanted to do something coming out of the wall, almost like a collage. I did a lot of white reliefs when I started because I liked antique reliefs, really old stuff.”

Ellsworth Kelly, "Yellow Relief Over Blue" (2012)

Ellsworth Kelly, “Yellow Relief Over Blue” (2012), oil on canvas, two joined panels (click to enlarge)

In 1954 he returned to the US and moved to New York, where he fell in with a younger generation of artists living and working in Lower Manhattan. His neighbors in the deserted Financial District and South Street Seaport areas included Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, and Barnett Newman. Though he had received his first solo show at Paris’s Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre in 1951, it was his New York debut, with Betty Parsons Gallery in 1956, that launched his career. Just three years later, MoMA included his work in the landmark exhibition 16 Americans.

“Ellsworth was a wonderful example of how to function as an artist,” Frank Stella, whose infamous Black Paintings were first shown in 16 Americans, recalled during a 2013 panel I attended in honor of Kelly’s 90th birthday.

“To see Frank’s pictures made me feel like I was doing OK,” Kelly said at the 2013 panel. “I told Dorothy [Miller, curator of 16 Americans], ‘I have to talk to this guy.’” Stella and Kelly had been friends ever since.

Ellsworth Kelly, "Black Form II" (2011)

Ellsworth Kelly, “Black Form II” (2011), painted aluminum (click to enlarge)

In recent years Kelly had refined his paintings to a veritable lexicon of color and form, using shaped canvases and a spare palette of black and white, blues, yellows, reds, and the occasional brown. Though the boundary between painting and sculpture has long been blurry in his work, he had been experimenting more boldly with scale and surface in recent sculptures. His recent solo shows had included several glossy, mirror-like wall sculptures of painted aluminum.

Meanwhile his freestanding sculptures, with their more matted aluminum surfaces, had increased dramatically in scale and ambition — his 2012 commission for the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, “The Barnes Totem,” is 40 feet tall. One of the most ambitious projects of his career, a chapel with windows spanning the entire color spectrum, will be built on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. But for all their grandeur and sleek, geometric forms, his works have never lost their connection to nature and the organic. (His idea for a September 11 memorial that would have left Ground Zero as an undeveloped rectangle of green grass seemed to perfectly marry Kelly’s interest in monochrome geometry and the landscape.)

Ellsworth Kelly, Ground Zero collage (2003) (image nytimes.com, via greg.org)

Ellsworth Kelly, Ground Zero collage (2003) (image nytimes.com, via greg.org)

“My eyes are always searching outside for clues,” Kelly told W Magazine in 2012. “I keep investigating how the sun hits a building and the shadow that appears with it or the look of a field of bright green, the curve of green. I’m constantly investigating nature — nature, meaning everything.”

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...