Ellsworth Kelly

Teaching Page

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Ellsworth Kelly, Locust (Acacia), 1965-1966. Lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 24 x 35 3/8 inches. Edition of 75. © Ellsworth Kelly. Collection of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.
Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue, 1964. Screenprint on Mohawk Superfine Cover paper, 24 x 20 inches. Edition of 500. © Ellsworth Kelly and Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.

This teaching page is a resource to help you prepare your students for their visit to the museum and extend the discussion after your visit. Here, you can find information on the artthe artistkey ideasdiscussion questions, and additional resources. You can also download a large image of Locust (Acacia) and a large image of Red Blue. Red/Blue is always on view online through MMoCA Collects. It is not currently on view at the museum.

THE ART

Best known for paintings and sculptures constructed of elemental shapes and colors, Ellsworth Kelly has also pursued a career-long interest in printmaking. Red Blue, a screen print produced in 1964 and Locust (Acacia), a lithograph from 1965-1966 are examples of Kelly’s interest in distilling shapes observed in nature in print media.

On the surface, these two works seem to differ more than they relate to one another, but a closer consideration reveals that they follow the same conceptual thread: Kelly’s interest in the inherent abstraction present in the natural world, extracted by separating mental perception of an object from visual perception of it. Kelly is practiced at seeing objects as simple abstract shapes and forms, disassociating them from their context and removing details that might distract from contemplation or understanding of their most basic shapes. Red Blue and Locust (Acacia) reflect this discipline through their curved forms and simplicity of line and shape. Though Locust (Acacia) represents a recognizable object, the locust leaves are without texture or shadow. Red Blue suggests how the eye might catch the curve of a flower petal or a cast shadow; a fragment or partial view of a larger whole. To Kelly, the natural world offers him materials for his work, freeing him from the task of subjective expression. He has said, “The subject was already made and I could take from everything. It all belonged to me.”

Whether constructing forceful works of elemental shape and bold color or tracing a delicate line to describe a plant form, Ellsworth Kelly captures the essence of things using carefully refined observation of the natural world. He has said that “Making art has first of all to do with honesty. My first lesson was to see objectively, to erase all ‘meaning’ of the thing seen.” His art is about the essential act of seeing.

THE ARTIST

Ellsworth Kelly was born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York. As a child he was drawn to nature and spent much of his time bird-watching. He made countless drawings of plants and flowers, and still does so today. After graduating from high school in 1941, Kelly moved to Brooklyn where he became a student at the Pratt Institute. In 1943 Kelly was drafted into the U.S. Army and was assigned to a unit producing camouflage designs. Kelly was transferred to Europe in 1944. After being discharged from the military in 1945, Kelly used the G.I. Bill to fund his education at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he studied drawing and painting.

In 1948, Kelly moved to Paris where he met and interacted with numerous influential writers and visual artists. Kelly’s life in France was crucial to his development as an artist, and it was during his time in Paris that he developed the style he is known for today; here his work began to change from compositions of openly recognizable forms, like human faces, to works that were increasingly abstract. His work during this shift, though still referential, complicated the identification of a subject through the simplification of line, color, and shape as well as a partial view of an object. This change in direction was not all-encompassing, however, since Kelly continued to produce simple line drawings and lithographs of plants, like Locust (Acacia), throughout his career.

Contemporaries and friends who have witnessed Kelly’s creative process describe his method of working as “restless” and “circular.” It is not uncommon for Kelly to revisit themes again and again. Kelly’s detailed sketchbook-keeping contributes to his ability to recall observations that later become part of his visual vocabulary. Looking at Kelly’s graceful lines, one might imagine his creative process as being orderly. His sketch diaries, though, contained glued and drawn upon scraps, painted and written upon newspaper pieces, irregularly cut canvas with palette-knifed smears of color, and other bits of visual chaos.

KEY IDEAS

  • Purity of form achieved by objectively recording the essential elements of objects found in the natural world
  • Direct observation of reality
  • Mental exercise of stripping an object of its meaning

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Ellsworth Kelly said he tries to remove the ‘meaning’ from the objects that he sees in the natural world. What characteristics give meaning to objects? Which characteristics has Kelly decided to leave out?
  2. Red Blue and Locust (Acacia) offer a fragmented or partial view of an object. How does Kelly focus attention on what he has depicted? How does this fragmentation affect your understanding of what you are seeing?
  3. The colors of Red Blue and the type of printmaking technique used to make it set it apart from Locust (Acacia), yet both pieces are simplified visions of objects found in nature. Compare the visual qualities of the two works. What other similarities and differences can you find?
  4. Ellsworth Kelly had said that “Making art first of all has to do with honesty.” What is “honest” about Red Blue and Locust (Acacia)?

RESOURCES

On the Artist:

Drawn from Nature: The Plant Lithographs of Ellsworth Kelly  by Richard H. Axsom.
New York Times

Art Methods:

MoMA Interactive Instruction on Printmaking