Ellsworth Kelly Explains His Relationship to Abstraction


“I’ve always lived in the present tense, and I like my paintings to be in the present tense,” Ellsworth Kelly begins his interview with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in 2013. Kelly spoke with the museum on the occasion of its exhibition, Ellsworth Kelly at 90: Paintings from the Paris Years until Today, only two years before the artist would die.

Alert and articulate, Kelly seemed to have years’ worth of work in him. “Every day of the week I’m here at the studio … And, right now, since I’m on oxygen, I feel it’s very important … I still have work to do,” he says, sitting on a leather chair in his studio, the wall behind him splattered with paint.

But perhaps what’s most memorable about this video is Kelly’s telling of his first encounter with abstraction: as a child, while “throwing tomatoes” on Halloween, he left his friends behind to inspect a window. “I saw a red, shape, a blue shape, and a black shape,” he says, “I had to find out what it was.” At first he couldn’t figure out what had intrigued him, until he began “to back up slowly” and noticed the shapes and colors of the furniture and curtains.

This image of Kelly as a boy, patient and almost puzzled that something as ordinary as the basic elements of a home had enticed him, serves as a kind of inspiration for how to approach the artist’s own work: with persistence and curiosity. “People want content … In figurative [work], right away, there’s a story. Abstraction has always been, ‘oh, it’s abstract,'” he says with some annoyance. “I think my pictures need time … They have to be looked at.”

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