Ellsworth Kelly

[05 Jan 2016]


Ellsworth KELLY (born in Newburgh [NY] on 31 May 1923 and died on 27 December 2015) was a pioneer of abstract art and began his career in the 1940s with his first relief paintings. Created on individual panels that looked like collages emerging from walls, Kelly’s carefully constructed works evoked ancient bas-relief sculptures by appearing to be part of the wall’s surface. On the border between painting, sculpture and architecture, their sharp lines and controlled colours opened up a new path in abstract art.

After five years of technical training in the US interrupted by two years in the American army’s Camouflage Battalion (Ghost Army), Kelly arrived in Paris in 1947 where he remained until 1954. His years spent in France largely contributed to the development of his radical pictorial language. Equally interested in the relationship between art and architecture in the churches that he visited as in Byzantine mosaics and Kandinsky’s abstract paintings, Kelly eagerly absorbed the works of revolutionary artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, Brancusi, Arp and Calder (who became his friend). These multiple influences led him to a new way of simplifying shapes, initially via the observation of cityscapes. Devoid of lyricism, Kelly’s abstract works were based on observations and a certain vision of reality. In France, Kelly took a very different path from his fellow countrymen involved in Abstract Expressionism and “Action painting”. Preferring simplicity, Kelly eschewed subjectivity, personal inspiration and the cult of the personality.
In 1954, Kelly decided to return to New York to enhance his commercial prospects. Once in the Big Apple, his career started to move faster with the support of Alexander Calder who introduced him to the Directors of the MoMA and the Guggenheim Museum. In 1957, Kelly participated in the Young America exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, which acquired one of his works. The following year, he returned to France for a solo exhibition at the Galerie Maeght and his French market subsequently began to gather momentum.

In the 1950s Kelly became the figurehead of a new style of American abstraction and he enjoyed a series of prizes, awards and exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. In 1965, he joined the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York and in 1966 his work was shown at the US pavilion of the Venice Biennale alongside Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein and Jules Olitsky. His first major consecration dates back to the early 1970s with a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (1973). Thereafter, Kelly’s signature became an absolute reference in America’s ContemporaryArt landscape. Later in his life, his fame and influence earned him a number of other prestigious honours including Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1993 and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2002. In 2003 he received the National Medal of Arts from the hands of Barack Obama.

Kelly’s prices vs. Reinhardt, Morellet, Nemours and Mosset

In 70 years of uncompromising creation, Kelly imposed his style and influenced a whole generation of minimalist artists of all genres. Collected mainly in the US (which accounts for 97% of his auction market), his prices started picking up in the mid-1980s with his first six-digit results and he crossed the million-dollar threshold in the early 2000s. Since 2000, his price index has risen 80% and his work has generated 22 million-plus results, including an auction record at $5.193 million in 2007 for Spectrum VI, a symphony of color on 13 panels, created ​​in 1969.
In price terms Kelly’s work is more expensive than that of his compatriot Ad REINHARDT (his elder by 10 years and recognized by the US market before Kelly). Reinhardt’s minimalist rigour and colour has generated an auction high of $2.7 million (for a red abstract painting dated 1953 – at Christie’s in 2013) and only eight 7-figure results.

But the price gap is very substantially wider if we compare Kelly or Reinhardt with their French counterparts, who were equally involved in creating controlled and designed abstractions. These artists include François MORELLET (born 1926) and Aurélie NEMOURS (born 1910) who are from the same generation, and Olivier MOSSET, born 1944. None of these three artists, who contributed just as much to French Contemporary creation as Kelly and Reinhardt did to the American scene, have reached into 7 figures on the art market. Morellet has the highest auction result with a record at $590,000 five years ago (2 trames de tirets 0° 90°, dated 1972 and sold at Sotheby’s Amsterdam in 2010) and notwithstanding a price index up no less than 537% since 2000!
The relatively low prices of these French artists is no doubt a function of their lack of exposure. In order to seduce American collectors of abstract art, these artists would have to be honoured with major retrospectives in France and then in the United States.