American artist Ellsworth Kelly, whose work defined postwar American abstract art, died Sunday in his home in Spencertown, New York, according to Matthew Marks of the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan. He was 92.
Ellsworth Kelly’s contributions as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker made him one of the most treasured of American artists. A careful observer of form, color, and the natural world, Kelly has shaped more than half a century of abstraction and was a vital influence in American art. Kelly’s striking geometric paintings and sculptures contributed to the “Color Field” style that emerged among abstract artists in the 1960s and influenced the Minimalist movement that would develop in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kelly was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1923 and served in the army during World War II. Kelly was stationed in France, in a unit that worked to intimidate Nazi forces with fake weaponry and tanks, a group he called the “rubber army” in an NPR interview in 2007.
In 1943, Ellsworth Kelly, a member of this top-secret 23rd Special Troops, is seen (above) standing with a prototype of a fake jeep, made of burlap and wood. Later, it would be made of rubber — and used to fool German troops on the battlefields of World War II. Kelly was one of more than 1,000 men who joined the 23rd.
An NPR excerpt:
That’s because their work was kept secret until 1996. The mission of the 23rd — made up largely of artists, designers, architects and sound engineers — was to deceive the enemy by drawing their attention away from real combat troops.
Their weapons? Inflatable jeeps and tanks, acting, sound recordings and plenty of imagination.
Recruits to a ‘Rubber Army’
More than a thousand troops were recruited into this top-secret, phantom army, some of whom came right out of art school. Fashion designer Bill Blass was one of them, as was photographer Art Kane and a number of now well-known artists, including abstract expressionist Ellsworth Kelly.
Kelly heard about the 23rd while he was still an art student and decided he wanted to be part of the subterfuge unit. When he joined, work was already underway on developing fake artillery and vehicles.
He recalls a jeep that was first made as a prototype with burlap and wood. Later, it was made of rubber and looked like the real thing.
After the war, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before returning to Paris to live and work as an artist.
In France, he observed architectural elements of Paris and the Romanesque churches in towns outside of Paris, elements that would influence his early abstract paintings. The photographs he took in France during the 1950s and 1960s show how real-life elements became the focal interest for his career as an artist, according to Thomas Krens, former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who was interviewed by PBS NewsHour in 1997.
Kelly held a solo show in Paris in 1951 and moved to New York City in 1954, where he eventually was commissioned to create “Sculpture for a Large Wall,” a mural for the Transportation Building in Philadelphia that was subsequently removed in a controversial decision. Even fashion icons like Balenciaga were captured by his starkly elegant, monochromatic canvases in powerfully spare colors—making Kelly one of the most eminent artists of his generation who even influenced fashion designers.
His first U.S. retrospective was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982, followed by retrospectives at the Fort Worth Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Detroit Institute of Arts in 1987. A joint effort between the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris and the National Gallery in Washington showed his work from France in 1992.
He received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2012 for shaping “more than half a century of abstraction.”