Ellsworth Kelly, one of America’s great 20th-century abstract artists, who in the years after World War II shaped a distinctive style of American painting by combining the solid shapes and brilliant colors of European abstraction with forms distilled from everyday life, died on Sunday at his home in Spencertown, N.Y. He was 92.
His death was announced by Matthew Marks of the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan.
Mr. Kelly was a true original, forging his art equally from the observational exactitude he gained as a youthful bird-watching enthusiast; from skills he developed as a designer of camouflage patterns while in the Army; and from exercises in automatic drawing he picked up from European surrealism.
Although his knowledge of, and love for, art history was profound, he was little affected by the contemporary art of his time and country. He was living in France during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in New York and only distantly aware of art in the United States.
When he returned to America in 1954, he settled on what was then an out-of-the-way section of Manhattan for art, the Financial District, and had little interaction with many of his contemporaries. The result was a deeply personal and exploratory art, one that subscribed to no ready orthodoxies, and that opened up wide the possibilities of abstraction for his own generation and those to come.
Born in Newburgh, N.Y., on May 31, 1923, Mr. Kelly studied painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston after his discharge from the Army in 1945. But his formative years as an artist were in Paris, which he had visited briefly during World War II, and where he returned to live in 1948 with support from the G.I. Bill.
The seven years he subsequently spent there had continuing emotional resonance for him throughout his life. In a 1996 interview with The New York Times, he recalled his early days in the city:
“Paris was gray after the war. I liked being alone. I liked being a stranger. I didn’t speak French very well, and I liked the silence.”
The Influence of Paris
When he arrived, he was painting figures influenced by Picasso and Byzantine mosaics. But he quickly immersed himself in museums, adding both Asian art and Matisse to his eclectic store of influences.
He also spent time outside Paris visiting Romanesque churches, and the relationship between art and architecture remained important to him, evident in the many public commissions he completed late in his career.
As isolated as he may have felt in Paris, he met extraordinary people. Some of them, like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, were Americans passing through. Others were resident legends.
He visited the studio of the abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whose simplification of natural shapes remained one of Mr. Kelly’s formal ideals. He was introduced to the Surrealist Jean Arp, whose use of chance as a compositional device Mr. Kelly adopted. The sculptor Alexander Calder became a friend, as did the young American painter Jack Youngerman.
Within a year of his arrival, Mr. Kelly was painting his first abstract pictures using a mix of chance elements and references to nature, which he defined as everything seen in the real world.
“I started to look at the city around me, and that became my source,” he said.
The early paintings and drawings were derived from patterns found in sidewalk grates, or configurations of pipes on the side of a building. A gridlike field of black and white squares was inspired by the play of light on the Seine. A painted wood cutout, “Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris” (1949), corresponded in dimensions and form to the title object.
“I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures,” he told The Times in 1996. ”I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me.”
Mr. Kelly’s use of found elements went beyond just letting his eyes wander. It led him to create purely abstract paintings composed of randomly arranged and joined colored panels, a radical move even for him.