While studying in Paris following WWII, Ellsworth Kelly, recognized internationally by scholars, artists, and museums as one of the most influential artists at the turn of the millennium, unlocked a new kind of abstraction through his isolation of the discreet forms he observed in the world around him. It was during this period that Kelly made the seminal 1949 painting, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, in which he eliminated brushwork and transitioning values, leaving four white and gray rectangular shapes bounded by heavy black lines. Over time his painting and sculpture evolved into investigations of pure color, or even the absence of color, that he is known for today. Beginning in 1988 and for the following two summers, while a student of sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, I was employed by Kelly, and this unique opportunity offered me insight into the significance of his pivotal work. Unknown to me then, these three summers would provide the foundation for a lifetime of learning, and instill in me a deep appreciation for teaching as lineage. Working for Kelly not only shaped how I approach my own art, but also the work of other artists and my students.
Ellsworth Kelly, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, 1949, Oil on wood and canvas, two joined panels,
50 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches (128.3 x 49.5 cm). Private collection. © Ellsworth Kelly. Courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio
It was a spring day in Oradell, New Jersey, when my great Aunt Dorothy Lange Opsut (Aunt Dot to the family) facilitated an unlikely introduction. With her customary afternoon scotch in hand, she asked about one of her former sixth grade students: “Ellsworth Kelly, have you heard of him?” I certainly had and, moreover, she was happy to learn I greatly appreciated his work. Aunt Dot went on to say that, 53 years later, she was still in touch with “Ells.”
Dorothy Lange Opsut in 1956
In due course, I would learn from him of the high esteem in which he held “Aunt Dot,” as he’d begun calling her when I worked there, and how he credited her with inspiring him to pursue art at an early, critical juncture in his life. Although primarily an English teacher, she and her husband Ed Opsut, Kelly’s shop teacher, recognized in him an affinity for art. In 1935, Kelly said it was she who had shown him Van Gogh drawings, and urged him to acquire a sketchbook and drawing supplies. He welcomed this advice, and with freshly purchased materials in hand, traveled to Paramus, New Jersey, to draw its surrounding celery fields. The contrast of the dark earth to the soft shades of celery and blue sky remained vivid in his mind.
Following my visit with Aunt Dot, she phoned Kelly to ask if he would meet with her nephew, a student in art school. He generously agreed. Perhaps naively, I brought some life drawings to show him at our first meeting in Spencertown, New York. He carefully looked at each one, all the while underscoring the importance of direct observation and noting the relationship between form and space. He emphasized that observation and drawing were vital to the development of an artist. As I was to learn, his interactions with young artists were always encouraging, asking about their own work and other artists of interest to them.
I became an “assistant to his assistant,” with varied responsibilities: I stretched canvas, prepared the backing of finished paintings, inventoried sketchbooks, and set the studio up for visits. Perfection was always the goal. Kelly explained that the back of a canvas must reflect the precision of its front. But he never allowed anyone in the studio when painting; this was a solitary endeavor requiring uninterrupted concentration. While Kelly painted, I tended the lawn, worked in the office, and maintained the sculpture on his property. In the morning or afternoon I would eagerly return to the studio to straighten up and clean brushes, affording me the opportunity to witness the day-to-day development of his work. One morning Kelly asked me, “Do you see anything different with this painting?” I responded that the blue was darker. “No,” he said smiling, “I worked on the purple yesterday.” Kelly was a master of perception in all its nuances. The result of subtle changes to one color effectively shifted the value of all the colors in a piece.
Henri Matisse, Zulma, 1950, Gouache on paper, 273.6 x 152.3 cm.
National Gallery of Denmark. © Succession H. Matisse/BilledKunst
Most of my lunch hours were spent in Kelly’s second floor library. I sat at a desk covered with books and catalogues on various artists and exhibitions. The walls were floor to ceiling bookshelves. Day after day I explored the library, absorbing the work of Picasso, Cezanne, and Picabia in catalogues and essays. One afternoon Kelly showed me a worn manila folder containing reproductions of Matisse drawings and paintings, apparently a personal treasure. I sensed his excitement as he leafed through images torn from magazines, pointing out the assurance of Matisse’s lines and the complex volumes they described. Kelly conveyed to me the immediacy of Matisse’s art, and for the first time I grasped the intensity of relationships artists develop with each other’s work across time. Kelly’s connection to Matisse reaches back decades to the time he lived in Paris after the war and saw the cut-out Zulma (1950) at the Salon de Mai. In the Ellsworth Kelly Catalogue Raisonné, editor Yve-Alain Bois cites a letter from Kelly to his friend, the artist Ralph Colburn: “Matisse sent a huge colored paper cutout of a draped standing nude which is perhaps the most mature transcendent thing exposed. Very gay, youthful, spring like, it makes me feel very, very happy to see it…”
Ellsworth Kelly, Ailanthus, 1948, Graphite on paper, 55.9 x 43.2 cm. Private collection. © Ellsworth Kelly
Kelly’s reflections seamlessly tie Matisse’s ideas and investigations to a clear personal vision. In 2009 his description of his plant drawings to Hans Ulrich Obrist also bring to mind the inquisitive energy underpinning much of Matisse’s work: “My plant drawings are mostly about line, how I make the line speak…it’s mostly about investigation and the freedom you get with the hand, and the eye, and what you’re looking at all working together.” Through our own conversation in the library and over time I have come to understand Kelly’s assertion that he did not consider himself a minimalist and, in turn, I no longer think of him as one. Minimalism, a significant theoretical movement that came of age in the 1960s, often seemed to place artists in the position of breaking their own rules; Kelly, on the other hand, looked outward for his concepts, distilling nature and life into form and color. In the process, he developed a visual syntax through chromatic quotations of nature’s subtlest framework.
Ellsworth Kelly with Tong in Spencertown in 2013
In the years that followed, Kelly continued to welcome me in Spencertown. He patiently looked at my art, eventually met my wife, Qin, and in 2013 we introduced him to our 17-year-old son Tong, with whom he talked at length. He explained that the ages of 18, 19, and 20 are about friendship, having experiences, and figuring things out. Again, I sensed Kelly’s excitement when he took Tong aside to show him a book on Picasso. He explained that Picasso was someone he had to “shake off.” While Picasso’s work was very personal, his was “impersonal.” Tong later asked me what Kelly meant by impersonal, a concept divergent to Tong’s understanding of art at the time. While Kelly’s vision is entirely his own, his work exists independently of him outside the studio, providing no evidence of its creation through gesture and assembly. It exists in the moment, recalling ancient and future forms. Detached from its creator, to me the work embodies stillness and meditation in a rapidly changing world.
Oradell Junior High School 1938 yearbook, with cover illustration by Ellsworth Kelly. Courtesy of the author
I worked for Kelly during my most formative years before graduating from RISD. The lessons learned from him through his art, professionalism, and encouragement continue to serve me in the studio and in the classroom as a teacher today. As a graduation gift Aunt Dot gave me a 1938 ninth grade Oradell Junior High School yearbook with a drawing by Kelly printed on its cover. His keen eye for reduction was already apparent in the intersecting heavy blue lines framing the left and lower edges of the cover, and the selective lines defining a belfry. I was also pleased to see the dedication: “We the class of 1938, gratefully dedicate this, our yearbook, to Dorothy Lange Opsut.” Kelly was acknowledged by his peers as “Best Artist,” “Class Giant,” and inconceivably, “Laziest.” On the contrary, Kelly never stopped working. In addition to painting, his work required endless planning and drawing. Rooted in observation, the source of his vision is evident all around us, in cast shadows, the negative space between branches, the angle of a structure—giving form to the elusive majesty of an instant.
Matthew Garrison is an artist based outside of Philadelphia and Associate Professor of Art and Digital Media at Albright College.
 Kelly, Ellsworth, Yve-Alain Bois, and Eric Banks. Ellsworth Kelly: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Reliefs and Sculpture. Print.
 Kelly, Ellsworth, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Ellsworth Kelly Thumbing through the Folder. Köln: König, 2009. Print.
(Image at top: Ellsworth Kelly, Purple Panel with Blue Curve, 1989, Oil on canvas, two joined panels , 76 x 114 inches. Private collection. © Ellsworth Kelly. Photo courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio)