“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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Elisa Wouk Almino

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

4 replies on “Ellsworth Kelly Explains His Relationship to Abstraction”

  1. I can totally relate to the Halloween night window story. In our tv room when I was a child there were windows above and behind the couch that I’d sit and the light coming in would be reflected in the tv screen across from me, I would always get entranced by the reflected shapes and forms of the the patterned light that would white out parts of the image forms on the tv creating these beautiful abstractions.

    1. Ellsworth makes an incredibly astute observation in that often Art is simply about the fascinating qualities of the observable world. It takes a child’s eyes to truly appreciate the general ‘coolness’ of it all.

      1. One must define “what is the observable world”? The Chinese of Old stated that everything in Life is Perception. Awareness is one key ingredient. Something “new to your eyes/mind”,(your reference to a child’s eyes) as well. Add to the pot, some psychological factors; namely, how you interpret your past experiences and apply them to any situation. By way of an example: if you were asked what is the first word that comes into your mind in response to the word “FIRE”. You may say HOT or WATER or even GUN, as in ready, aim fire. All are correct for each individual. Now apply my example to ANY work of Art! Makes Art interesting and exciting for all of us!

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