The US Postal Service just announced it will release a new set of stamps honoring a major 20th-century artist from the Hudson Valley, Ellsworth Kelly. The series of ten stamps includes reproductions of the paintings Yellow White (1961), Colors for a Large Wall (1951), Blue Red Rocker (1963), Spectrum I (1953), South Ferry (1956), Blue Green (1962), Orange Red Relief (for Delphine Seyrig) (1990), Meschers (1951), Red Blue (1964) and Gaza (1956).
Characterized by bright-colored, crisply detailed geometric forms, Kelly’s paintings are often classified together with the Color Field school of Abstract Expressionism and the later Hard-Edged school. But he worked independently from both movements, spending the New York heyday of the former studying in Europe and living in Manhattan himself – on Coenties Slip near South Street Seaport, far from the jet-set Midtown art scene – at the time that the latter emerged in California.
Kelly was born in Newburgh in 1923 but didn’t stay long, growing up in Oradell, New Jersey. Early influences on his artistic development included studying insects and other forms in nature, as well as the bird etchings of John James Audubon – but he was also fascinated by the silhouettes of domestic objects that he glimpsed in windows of neighboring homes. A shy, sickly child with a stutter and a domineering mother, he was allowed to attend the Pratt Institute on the condition that he study commercial design. That training led to assignments painting camouflage patterns on fake tanks in England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany during World War II.
After the war, he took advantage of GI Bill tuition stipends to attend the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School and then, in 1948, enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. “I didn’t go to Paris to go to school; I just wanted to look around,” he admitted in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. While working there he made the acquaintance of such art-world luminaries as Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Alberto Magnelli, Francis Picabia, Georges Vantongerloo, Alice B. Toklas, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. He spent a lot of time looking at the shapes of shadows and windows, studying Romanesque and Byzantine art and architecture, experimenting with automatic drawing. Before long he had left representational art well behind.
But Kelly never managed to master French, which hampered his ability to get his work shown, and by 1953 he had been evicted from his Paris studio. He decided – with some trepidation, as he wasn’t a fan of the Abstract Expressionism then exemplified by the likes of Pollock and De Kooning – to return to New York, with some financial assistance from his friend Alexander Calder. Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, Fred Mitchell, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney, Jack Youngerman and Barnett Newman were among his downtown neighbors.
Kelly decided that what he had to contribute to the Manhattan art scene was a return to the vivid use of color. By 1956 he’d had his first solo show in New York, at the Betty Parsons Gallery, and three years later he was included in “16 Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art. He began to experiment with sculpture, which bled into his painting work in the formed of shaped canvases. Among his best-known works in that category are the ell-shaped “Chatham Series,” a product of his move upstate in the early 1970s. Seeking a large, well-lit, affordable studio outside the City, he spotted a 19th-century brick loft with 12-foot-tall windows in Chatham that was being used to store the town’s Christmas lights. Kelly rented the space, got to work and soon thereafter bought a house in nearby Spencertown.
There he lived out the remainder of his years, joined in 1984 by photographer Jack Shear, whom he eventually married. The pair became avid collectors of local Shaker art and established a foundation together. Jasper Johns was a neighbor. Meanwhile, Kelly’s work was being shown and collected at prestigious art venues all over the world; his public commissions included a mural for UNESCO in Paris (1969), a sculpture for the city of Barcelona (1978) and a memorial for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC (1993). President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2013; the French government made him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1993 and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2002.
Ellsworth Kelly died of a respiratory ailment at home in Spencertown in 2015, at the age of 92, actively creating art right up until the end. The highest price commanded at auction by one of his works in his lifetime was $5.2 million, for Spectrum VI in 2007; but soon you’ll be able to get a sheet of ten miniature versions at 55 cents apiece at your local post office.