One of America’s most prominent abstract artists, Ellsworth Kelly, died Sunday at his home in upstate New York. He was 92.
Kelly received his first public art commission from Philadelphia in the ’50s, and he received one of his last commissions from the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in 2012.
The Barnes Foundation is based on a collection of modernist art assembled by Albert Barnes in the early 20th century, since then remaining steadfastly unchanged. When the foundation moved to its new building on the Parkway, it wanted to update itself — and turned to Kelly. He was asked to create a large totem sculpture for the building entrance; later, he was the subject of the Barnes’ first solo exhibition.
The totem is an example of Kelly’s abstract geometric style, wherein he attempted to evoke a reaction based solely on simple shapes and bold colors.
Speaking through an oxygen tube during a visit to the Barnes in 2013, a visibly frail Kelly remembered how the idea for abstraction was seeded while he was living in Paris after World War II.
“When I was younger, in Paris, I went to a movie and they had a short on tropical fish,” Kelly said. “The audience, when they saw golden, purple and blue, they all went, ‘Ahhhh,’ in unison. Why can’t I get my paintings to say that? The content is in the shape and what you feel from it.”
Philadelphia was also the site of Kelly’s very first commission. In 1957, “Sculpture for a Large Wall” was installed in the old Transportation Building near City Hall. The sculpture was removed in 1998 and is now owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.