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Ellsworth Kelly

By Terry Winters

It’s appropriate that we remember Ellsworth Kelly here on Audubon Terrace. John James Audubon had been a lifelong influenceboth as an ornithologist and as a painter. Ellsworth’s exacting vision, formal intelligence, and sense of purpose can be traced back to his boyhood birdwatching. And of course, Ellsworth himself was a tremendous influence on so many painters. Myself included. I can remember as a student spending an entire semester making Ellsworth Kelly collages. Many years later, improbably or inevitably, I would find myself exhibiting in the same New York gallery and becoming neighbors in upstate New York. Ellsworth was a great painter and a generous friend. After his death, I wrote this short tribute, which appeared in Artforum magazine:

The trajectory is well known, from Newburgh to Spencertown, with some significant stops in betweenrural Jersey, Boston and Paris, Coenties Slip and Chatham. Paintings are the signposts left along the way, color-coded markers of distance and direction. An abstract autobiography. Ellsworth Kelly sharpened his instinctive feeling for form with an exacting modernist sensibility. But despite the rigor and the reduced means, his work was essentially popular, made accessible through a selection of found sources: a shadow, a leaf, an architectural detail. Each familiar object is given an independent existence as a concrete force, the perfect product of Yankee invention and ingenuity.

In the 1970s, Kelly returned to the Hudson Valley, reanimating his boyhood fascination with nature and his ardor for birdwatching. This early passion for shape, color, and flight would become a foundational myth and find its fullest expression in the soaring chromatics of his later work. With an assist from Brancusi and a twist of Newman’s ornithology, Kelly’s aesthetics were appropriated through observation, bird-inspired. And as with the Shakers he so admired, Kelly’s aesthetic was his ethicMount Matisse meets Mount Lebanon in an original and lasting union. Capable of activating a transformative space both sparse and full, his work is a location for lived experience: as sensation, logic, and poetic meaning. There was no more moving memorial than Kelly’s proposal for 9/11—a green and open field on the Trade Center site—somehow a symbol of nature’s plentitude and of human loss. Now, as the loss of Kelly himself is felt, his work stands as a continuing gift—a positive and powerful presence.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2017.

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