Born in Newburgh, New York, Ellsworth Kelly grew up in northern New Jersey. From 1941 to 1943 he studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but had to leave school to serve in the army. Stationed in Europe near the end of World War II, Kelly became fascinated by Romanesque architecture. Whenever possible he explored European cities, filling notebooks with drawings. He returned to the United States and attended the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1947 to 1948. There he painted in a realistic style similar to European expressionism. In late 1948 Kelly took advantage of the G.I. Bill and returned to France, where he stayed for six years studying art. Living mainly in Paris, he studied Byzantine icons and primitive art and traveled to see Romanesque frescoes and sculpture. The relationship between painting, sculpture, and architecture--their commonalities and boundaries--became a lifelong artistic interest.
While in Europe he visited the studios of many artists, including Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and Alexander Calder. Kelly also spent extended periods of time painting in the South of France. His first solo show took place in Paris in 1951. During the years he lived in France, Kelly's work evolved from representation to a sophisticated abstract style.
When he returned to the United States in 1954, his hard-edged, nonpainterly works were quite distinct from the mainstream of American abstraction, which was then dependent upon expressionism. Using spare shapes and sensuous colors, Ellsworth Kelly finds the essence of his art in natural forms, but the abstract clarity and solidity of his minimal works also have their own aesthetic presence.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]