An artist’s legacy

Ellsworth Kelly
Early work from Ellsworth Kelly’s own collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, installation view.

Contributed by Sharon Butler / Estate planning for artists is complex, but Ellsworth Kelly, who died at 92 in December 2015, seems to have considered his legacy carefully. The artist contributed artwork to museums around the world. During a recent trip to Philadelphia, I had a chance to see a grouping of early paintings, many from his own collection, in a small gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; while in Austin, I saw the model (and construction in progress) for a small stone building he designed to house his work at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas.

Ellsworth Kelly, Philadelphia Museum of Art, installation view.
Ellsworth Kelly, Philadelphia Museum of Art, installation view.
Ellsworth Kelly, Philadelphia Museum of Art, installation view.

The Philadelphia Museum exhibition, located in one of the side rooms off the contemporary painting corridor, featured small-scale paintings from the six years (1948 to 1954) Kelly spent in Paris after his army service in Europe during and after World War II. The work reveals an artist moving through ideas and imagery until he locks onto something that feels right. In Kelly’s case, that something consisted of unique, enigmatic shapes that reference experience while steering clear of overt depiction. In the small-scale black-and-white paintings on display, Kelly explores incorporating the grid, chance, line (hard-edge vs scumbled), and surface. His subject matter shifts from cubist-style portraiture to contour drawing, then to gridded squares, arriving finally at fragmented curves. These became the basis for his signature brand of colorful but cool Minimalist object making, which he continued until the end of his long life.

Ellsworth Kelly, model for Austin, on view at the Blanton Museum.
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, work in progress, construction site outside the Blanton Museum.

If the Philadelphia paintings exude a palpable sense of discovery, the 2,715-square-foot stone building project in Austin, the only building Kelly designed, conveys that of a mature and assured artist taking stock. The structure, which is scheduled to open in February 2018, will function as a concluding summation of all that Kelly learned from a lifetime in the studio. Like the Rothko Chapel in nearby Houston, Kelly’s Austin will house examples of the artist’s work that he made specifically for the project, including colored glass windows, a totemic wood sculpture, and fourteen black-and-white marble panels that resemble his paintings. Architecturally inspired by the heavy geometry of Romanesque churches, the building features a cross-shape layout and round ceilings. The brightly colored abstract windows at the end of each wing reference the stained glass windows that Kelly saw in Chartres Cathedral during his years in Paris.

In the model, which is on display at the Blanton in a room overlooking the construction site, diminutive images of Kelly’s marble tablets are hung side by side. It seems that Kelly, by literally carving his work in stone and creating a stone bunker to house it, might have been aiming for his work to survive not just hundreds of years but even millennia. In a 2008 interview in The Times (London), Kelly suggested that young artists, rather than painting for the moment or the market, should think about permanence, and this is exactly what he has done. Imagine the eventual discovery of Kelly’s Austin, thousands of years from now, in the manner of Stonehenge or Machu Picchu. The glass and wood may not survive, but the structure and the marble tablets will endure.

Related posts:
Video round-up, in celebration of Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly: Paint for the future, not the market
The long haul: Ellsworth Kelly
The subterfuge artists of WWII

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1 thought on “An artist’s legacy”

  1. Well written with fine photographs ” An Artist’s Legacy” article on late great Ellsworth Kelly; his early works and the ‘Austin Kelly’ Building for new Blanton Museum of Art.
    However, Kelly always eschewed/avoided “Minimalist” categorization/label. This was probably because of his early Parisian experiences, thought of himself as an International Artist, part of the continuity of Modernism. He, referenced in interviews, his experiments in Paris of creating early purely-abstract paintings by drawing randomized modular-color-elements as basis for these works. (About the same year late Francois Morellet was creating similar grid/’continuous field’ works [later prints colors positions drawn from Paris Phonebook] and USA colleague Jack Youngerman was also discovering that City.)
    Thank you for your succinct and apropos piece on one of Our Best.

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