When I visited Ellsworth Kelly at his upstate New York studio in the hamlet of Spencertown in late 2011 for the London Times, he was then 88. After our introductions, the first thing I noticed were the thin rubber tubes in his nose, connected, via snaking thicker rubber tubes, to oxygen canisters.
As we walked from room to room, Kelly discarded one headset of rubber tubes for another.
The artist, who died Sunday at 92, didn’t seem frail when I met him. He moved and spoke slowly and carefully. Jack Shear, Kelly’s partner of then-27, now-31 years’ standing, ran his life and business affairs with the help of an assistant.
Two art assistants stretched Kelly’s canvases for him, but Kelly mixed all his own oil paints and did his own painting. Not for him the production-line assembly-making artistic practice of Jeff Koons.
For one of the last living American artistic greats—his compadre Jasper Johns is another—Kelly was working hard. When we met there was a show of his giant wood sculptures in Boston, and exhibitions featuring his drawings of plants and new black-and-white canvases in Munich.
He was about to exhibit new color canvases at Matthew Marks, his New York gallery.
“They just found out my heart doesn’t make enough oxygen,” Kelly told me, showing me those new color paintings. “The machines make oxygen, then I have tanks I carry around outside. I guess it’s my age. I smoked in Paris for a few years, but that was years ago. They said my blood was in bad shape for a non-smoker, and all I can think is it’s the turpentine that I’ve been using for 60 years.”
He had been in Madrid for the opening of a show when he had trouble breathing and “found I couldn’t walk that much.”
Kelly was much more interested in talking about the paintings in front of us than his life.
I had always enjoyed Kelly’s work; the vivid blasts of color on canvases sometimes curved, sometimes sharply angled, sometimes square, sometimes semi-circular—color displayed in so many shapes, and contrasted to other colors—always made this gallery-goer simply stop, smile, and think. Kelly’s work seems to embody to me the heart of how visually immersive and mentally nourishing art could be.
As we stood in the studio, he indicated the paintings in front of us: beautiful, vivid contrast of color that used relief and radial curves. Orange overlapped blue, blue overlapped black.
If you want to encounter Kelly’s work in all its many glories, Phaidon recently published an impressive career-spanning monograph of his work, by Tricia Palk.
Kelly told me he became first interested in relief when he started painting in 1949 in Paris, white on whites at first, before his best-known early work, the 64 panels in Colors for a Large Wall, first used multiple colors.
“I was painting figuratively in 1948 and 1949, then asked myself, ‘What am I going to do?’” he recalled. “I could see what Picasso and Matisse were doing, and I met [Francis] Picabia, [Georges] Vantongerloo, and Giacometti. He was wonderful, very whimsical. He came to an opening of mine, and said, ‘Oh, you’re the one who did that big picture [‘Colors’]; let’s look at it.’
“He liked it and I said I’d like to see him once in a while, but I never stayed long. I last saw him at La Coupole. He sat down. My companion and I stood up, and knocked our glasses of water over. He looked at us and said, ‘Wow, you guys are really impressed, aren’t you?’”
Kelly bumped into Picasso, his enduring inspiration, “several times in some strange ways,” including when he was 24, walking near the artist’s Parisian studio, when Picasso’s car almost backed into him.
“Picasso was a rogue, really, a wild guy, the most competent and creative of all the artists in that school in Paris,” Kelly told me. “He and Matisse flowed back to each other and influenced each other.”
Kelly’s most dramatic encounter had been with Joan Miró at the Spanish painter’s studio in Majorca in the ’60s.
“He was worried about his place with the new generation of Abstract Expressionists. I was the messenger. He said desperately, ‘What’s going on with these American painters? I’m being forgotten.’ I said, ‘You’re not being forgotten; you’re the master Miró.’”
I asked why Kelly had chosen to major in the abstract. “The figurative seemed too personal,” he replied. “There was nothing more that I could do after Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, and Mondrian. I felt like I had to do something I hadn’t seen before, and in Paris I began to see new things like architecture, which echoed that. I began to look at things and make them abstract.”
Of his 1953 painting, “Seine,” he told the Guardian: “I lived on the Île Saint-Louis. Every night, walking home, I would walk down the outside quay and see the lights from the bridges on the water. I would just stand there and look at those reflections, and I thought: I want to do something that looks like this. But I don’t want to do a Pointillist painting. I said, I want to do something that flickers.
“So I wrote down 40 numbers and I put them in the box, one through 40.” He pulled out a single number—it must have been 21—and painted a single rectangle halfway down the left side of the canvas. “Then I picked out two numbers, then three, four, five, six, until I got to the black in the center. Then when I got halfway I started reversing it.”
Kelly’s formative adventures in Paris sounded far removed from his dreary New Jersey upbringing.
He told me he had been closer to his father, Allan, an insurance company executive, than to his mother, Florence. He had been a “very solitary” small boy who didn’t like sports. His paternal grandmother and mother took him bird-watching, an early inspiration, as most birds featured two or three defining colors: “I was astounded by the abstraction of the colors of the birds,” he told me. He was also ill with a lung disease that, before modern surgery, doctors had to cut into his back to treat.
“I felt a little bit outside my family,” he said. “I’ve never been a family person at all, because it’s not very smart. You have to find yourself. Parents have their job, I suppose, but most of them are more interested in themselves, and if they only let their children alone, some of them might have a few of their own ideas or go wild.”
After attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he joined the Army and a unit nicknamed the Ghost Army, “nowhere near the front line,” devoted to creating objects such as inflatable tanks to deceive the enemy.
In 1946 he enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, “where all I did was draw and paint nudes.” He hitchhiked to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the work of Picasso and Brancusi.
Then he attended the École Nationale Supérieure in Paris, where he started painting, had his first solo show and those salty encounters with artists.
Kelly says the English “got” his art early. Laughing, he recalled meeting Francis Bacon in 1962 over supper. Did Bacon flirt with you? I asked. “He assumed…” said Kelly, “in a way, yeah.” Did you have sex? I asked. “No, no, no.” You turned down Francis Bacon, I say. “Well, he was drunk,” said Kelly. Did you fancy him? “No, no, no, but as an artist, yes.”
In New York, Kelly knew Andy Warhol in the late ’50s, when Warhol was very young and “always wearing suits. He had his Factory, and frankly I was not very much moved by that.”
Kelly and a group of artists including Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin lived and worked together in Lower Manhattan. He was good friends with Roy Lichtenstein (“serious, a very hard worker, whimsical”) and told me he had stayed in touch with Jasper Johns, although there seemed to be a froideur there.
When I asked if they were friends, Kelly said, “I need to be careful what I say. I see him once in a while—close friends, well, no, but as friends go…yeah, he’s a good one.”
Given his own stature, I wondered how Kelly felt about Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and other high-rolling celebrity artists. “You can’t avoid their work,” he said. “It’s complicated. Younger artists are searching for a new way; their painting, performance art, scattered art—a lot of it is figurative, and I automatically discount anything figurative. I’ve lived for 60 years with abstraction. I left figurative art because I was bored of it. Why make art of something you’ve looked at? I want to make art of something I haven’t seen before. I’m not a talking person. Words don’t come as easily as ideas do. I don’t feel it’s normal to be open about things. Tracey Emin loves the opposite.”
“I don’t like exposure,” Kelly told me. “I see the auction catalogues. I know Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst make art objects which sell for a lot of money, but they’re on different plane than Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko. There’s a tradition of painting, of art, which is being broken up with their kind of performance and entertainment.”
There was an air of sadness about him, and I asked, gently, if Kelly had suffered from depression.
“Yes, I have,” he said tersely. “Two years ago. It’s all part of growing old. You can’t understand it. I kept it to myself. You don’t talk about it. Then things get better. There are medicines for things like that.”
Did he take them? “Yes, all old people take half a dozen pills. I have good doctors. I feel great now that I’ve got my oxygen. I can paint. I can do everything except move around, I can’t fly. My doctor said my depression was like getting a disease as you get older. You lose some of the chemicals in your body, and they give you the right chemicals to fill in what you lost.”
Shear brought us lunch. He is extremely handsome, with a luxuriant sweep of salt and pepper hair. At 62 (now, 58, then) he is 30 years Kelly’s junior; he had told me earlier on the drive from the train station that the couple had met in a photo-print shop in Los Angeles where Shear worked.
Shear “protected,” as he put it, Kelly from many things. The “deal” when they got together was that Shear couldn’t paint or sculpt, “which was fine by me,” Shear told me (Kelly had experienced being “used” professionally by other partners, he said).
Jack seems lovely, I said to Kelly. “Oh, he’s wonderful, very generous, very smart. He’s a good photographer, too,” said Kelly.
You’ve been together for 27 years, I said.
Kelly smiled. “It seems like…pffftt,” he said, gesturing to time passing in a flash. “He’s got a wonderful head on his shoulders, and we talk a lot.”
Were his parents finally proud of him? I asked. “My dad was. Very. He liked seeing me in newspapers. With my mother, it felt like a block. They wanted me to come to see them in New Jersey, but I would only spend the afternoon there. I did my duty. They were very ordinary, and I think that in order to do the painting I do, I am extraordinary, different, extraordinarily different. In some way growing up in my mother’s house made me a painter.”
He added, “There wasn’t much interaction there, and I think with a lot of creative people the desire to create is because there’s an emptiness to be filled. And I had that, from the age of 12 to 25. You have to become an adult, to live your life, and that emptiness—that’s what my painting was about.”
I asked if he felt fulfilled, and his answer took in how he felt about mortality, too.
“You look back at all the work you’ve done—and I’ve done more than 1,000 works—and that’s fulfilling enough. Death is inevitable. I want another 20 years, but you never know. Can I live to be 100? It would be nice. Now that I have my oxygen I can keep going, and the rest of my body seems OK, but the lungs are important, and if the doctors say it’s getting worse, it just depends on how much time I have left. But I feel pretty good, and I have been exercising.”
“I like your eyebrows. They’re very strong,” Kelly told me as I was leaving.
If you love Kelly’s bold, warm, enveloping canvases—their slashes of color, their angles, their shapes, their mastery of shape and contrast—you can perhaps understand why I will always cherish that compliment.