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Ellsworth Kelly’s Legacy Of Giving

Kelly, Bill Thompson and Marie Claude Giroux.

By Jamie Larson

As an artist, Ellsworth Kelly, who passed away on December 27 at the age of 92, left a mark on the world —a gift of great size, color and beauty. Greater still is the mark he has left here in our region, as a supremely generous neighbor. In addition to his awe-inspiring body of work — a foundation stone in the school of modern minimalism and color field painting — his local legacy of quiet charitable giving, especially that in support of childhood art education, insures his monumental presence will be seen and felt here, very tangibly, forever.

“The longevity of Kelly’s career was remarkable, especially the splendid output of the last two decades,” says Ann Temkin, the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, the home of nearly 200 works by Kelly and perhaps the venue most associated with his art. “Kelly always worked with great concentration and great pleasure, and this was all the more true in the last chapter of his career. For the fortunate visitors to his studio in Spencertown, the artist’s joy in his work was immediately evident and highly contagious. Available to all in the collections of museums around the world, Kelly’s creations stand as exhilarating celebrations of life.”

Ellsworth Kelly in studio by Jack Shear.

Over the near half century that Kelly lived in Spencertown, N.Y., working first in a studio on Main Street in Chatham and then out of a home studio, his international acclaim only grew. But he also found another purpose here, investing nearly $2 million for the creation of youth art programming for all seven of the public school districts in Columbia County. Through its generosity, the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation has allowed a generation of local children (including this writer) to explore and expand their creative abilities.

The EKF worked with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to help implement its philanthropic goals over these many years and the BTCF shared this sentiment on Kelly’s passing:

“We are so grateful for our partnership with him and his foundation to create permanent sources of support for arts and humanities programming for the 7,800 students in Columbia County’s public schools. In the last 15 years, the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation has contributed nearly $2 million to six Berkshire Taconic education enrichment funds that enhance teaching and learning through hands-on projects in theater, literature, music, fine arts, history and more. Encouraged by a public school teacher to pursue his passion for art, Ellsworth Kelly in turn has helped inspire hundreds of local students through life-changing experiences that might otherwise be out of reach. This tremendous legacy of generosity will continue for decades to come and transform the lives of young people in Columbia County.”

‘Méditerannée’ by Kelly.

Kelly moved to the area in the 1970s, already accomplished and affixed as a shaper of the modern art world. Born in 1923 in Newburgh, N.Y., Kelly served in WWII, on a project called the Ghost Army which designed false military equipment intended to confuse the enemy. Afterward, he lived in Paris, and then New York, among many noteworthy peers of his generation.

In his sculptures and paintings Kelly employed large shapes and fields of solid colors. Some viewers never quite got them, seeing them as too simple or straightforward, while others, indeed most, are moved by the artist’s ability to capture the feeling inside form and space.

“(He) was one of the giant figures in the art of our time,” says Temkin. “With a singular voice, he carried forward the abstraction pioneered by the European modernists into the second half of the 20th century. Kelly’s paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints were rooted in the observation and study of line, form and color. He was not interested in recording narratives or emotions, but rather in transcribing his perceptions, and engaging viewers in the act of perception.”

When he first moved up river, he wasn’t sure if he would stay but as those who have worked with him through the years have noted, while his work is abstraction, much of its language is drawn from nature. His sketches, which are displayed publicly from time to time, capture more literally the shapes of plants and the natural world, while hinting of a further evolution into the curves, edges and solid colors of his larger work.

A sculpture by Kelly, now in Sweden.

A number of his sketches and other works were shown, on the event of Kelly’s 90th birthday, at the intimate Thompson Giroux Gallery in Chatham. And again, just last year, a unique exhibition Kelly put together at the Clark Art Institute featured his drawings and paintings alongside paintings of Claude Monet. Monet is credited for inspiring some of Kelly’s earliest monochromatic work in France, so the local exhibition was steeped in meaning.

The Clark’s interim Senior Curator Kathleen Morris met with Kelly infrequently during that project but said the artist’s presence in our already art rich community is elevating.

“He had a lifelong tie to the area,” Morris says. “It’s a reflection of how beautiful the Berkshires and upstate New York are, and the quiet way of life here. The presence of artists, past and present, in our community is really vital.”

Kelly wouldn’t be the first local artist to pull inspiration from the surrounding mountains and valley. From Fredric Church to Norman Rockwell, there is a well-trodden path of America’s greatest artists finding a muse here, but there’s something unparalleled about the successful way Kelly transmuted natural form.

“I think he was fundamentally interested in nature,” Morris adds. “He created a new formal language for it, but I think it sprang from nature.”

The art of Ellsworth Kelly is a gift left to the world. Here in the region he called home, we were given even more.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 01/12/16 at 08:37 AM • Permalink