How the Art World Is Honoring Ellsworth Kelly’s Centenary

A slate of major museum shows—and a generous widower—are honoring the centenary of late artist Ellsworth Kelly, whose vivid abstractions made even the simplest forms feel monumental.

Ellsworth Kelly in 2011. Image courtesy of Jack Shear/Ellsworth Kelly Foundation

Ellsworth Kelly first took up an interest in birdwatching shortly after his family moved to Oradell, New Jersey. “I believe my early interest in nature taught me how to see,” he explains in the introduction of his 2018 Phaidon monograph. An experience of seeing a redstart—“a small black bird with a few very bright red marks”—would prove formative to one of the 20th century’s most influential abstract artists, whose hard-edge paintings captivated with bright hues and clever techniques that emphasized line, form, and distilling concepts to their very essence.

Though he remains one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, Kelly’s work wasn’t always well-received. As the world emerged from the horrors of World War II, the 1950s signaled a period of transition. Artists were no exception, and Abstract Expressionism took hold as the main conduit for painters to convey the darkest corners of their psyches on canvas. Kelly, having served in the war and spent time in Paris, instead opted for vivid abstractions as a form of therapy. That split opinions, leading him to apologize for using bright colors during a 1956 show at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Times change, of course, and in the ensuing decades the world welcomed his light. 

“Spectrum IX” (2014) by Ellsworth Kelly. Photography by Ron Amstutz/Matthew Marks Gallery

Kelly, who died in 2015, would be celebrating his centenary this year. His seven-decade legacy is being commemorated in a wave of centennial exhibitions this spring, including at the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

But the most notable is taking place at Maryland’s Glenstone Museum, the contemporary art stronghold founded (and bankrolled) by collectors Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales. More than 70 seminal works will be on display, spanning early abstractions and totemic wood sculptures to Yellow Curve, a giant painting installation on view for the first time since debuting at Frankfurt’s Portikus am Main in 1990. “Ellsworth Kelly’s vision for art can teach us so much about looking deeply at the world and translating what we see into its immediate visual components,” Emily Wei Rales says. “As a lover of nature, Ellsworth’s quiet and practiced eye created paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, and collages that are as rewarding and challenging on the 50th encounter as they are on the first.”

“Yellow Curve” (1990) by Ellsworth Kelly. Photography by Ron Amatutz

As Yellow Curve suggests, Kelly excelled at making even the simplest forms seem monumental. That generous spirit lives on through his widower, Jack Shear, who serves as the president of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation in Spencertown, New York. Earlier this spring, he announced the donation of 146 works to 19 museums—a few of which were able to choose which ones they wanted—in honor of Kelly’s centennial. Through the foundation, he has also given away $14 million and serves as a lead patron of the forthcoming Shaker Museum. But he’d prefer to stay out of the spotlight. 

“Whatever happens is because of Ellsworth,” he told the New York Times. “I’m stewarding his legacy as best I can.” 

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