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May 31, 2023

Acquisition: Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, "Fourteen Projects"

Ellsworth Kelly
Fourteen Projects, 1955
transparent and opaque watercolor, ink, and graphite with cut-and-pasted colored paper on wove paper
framed: 50.48 x 44.13 x 3.81 cm (19 7/8 x 17 3/8 x 1 1/2 in.)
sheet: 29.21 x 21.59 cm (11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
© 2023 Ellsworth Kelly Foundation

Associated with Color Field painting and minimalism, Ellsworth Kelly (1923–2015) had a lifelong interest in the interplay between painting, sculpture, and architecture. The National Gallery of Art has acquired three working drawings and one collage offered through the Ellsworth Kelly estate and specifically chosen by Jack Shear (Kelly’s partner of 32 years) to complement other works by the artist in the collection. Representing a special gift in honor of the Ellsworth Kelly centennial in 2023, these works provide unique insights into the artist’s practice. With rich holdings of over 300 works on paper, multiples, paintings, and sculptures by Kelly, the National Gallery welcomes its first (and only) working drawings by the artist to its collection.

Fourteen Projects (1955) explores figure-ground color relationships and reflects a new interest in curvilinear forms. The collage study Preliminary Design for “Eastmore Mural” (2) (1956) was made in preparation for the mural commission for the lobby of the Eastmore House apartment building in New York. The syncopation of form that Kelly explored in the succession of cut paper shapes stretched out along this horizontal composition relates to other key works he made at the time, including his monumental Sculpture for a Large Wall (1956–1957)—created for the new Philadelphia Transportation Building in 1957 and now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Study for Stele II (Sculpture EK 509) and Study for Stele II (both 1973)  relate to the National Gallery’s Stele II sculpture, currently on view in the sculpture garden.   

Born in Newburgh, New York, Kelly grew up in New Jersey and studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before being drafted into the US Army during World War II and serving in Europe. Returning to the United States after the war, Kelly studied at the Boston Museum School and taught at Norfolk House Center, Roxbury, Massachusetts, before traveling to Paris on the GI Bill in 1948 and remaining in France until 1954. While abroad, Kelly responded to multiple eclectic influences, from Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brâncuși, and Jean Arp to Romanesque architecture and Byzantine mosaics, developing a distinctive abstract style in clear contrast to the abstract expressionism then prevailing in New York. Upon his return from Europe, Kelly settled quietly in a relatively remote section of Lower Manhattan. He was discovered by New York dealer Betty Parsons, who offered him his first one-person exhibition in the United States in 1956.

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