These Are the Last Great Paintings Ellsworth Kelly Made Before He Died

Matthew Marks gallery shows the rigorous works made right before the painter's death.

Ellsworth Kelly Black Over Yellow, 2015, oil on canvas, two joined panels, 90 x 70".

Ellsworth Kelly: Last Paintings” is a sight to behold—but it also has to be experienced. The nine works showcased represent the final paintings that Kelly made before his passing in 2015, capping off a long career yet still presenting new ways of seeing.

All the works here, in the sun-drenched Matthew Marks gallery on 22nd Street, are large, stark in presence, and foreboding in size. Depending on the cast of its shadow or the brightness of the sun rays that pierce them, the images recede into space or project out towards the viewer with playful grace. These impressions of concave and convex surfaces are all the more accentuated by the way the canvasses are stretched (so taut that they seem springy) and hung, mounted so that they are few inches away from the wall, as if they were, ever so slightly, hovering.

One of the American masters of abstract painting, Kelly developed his iconic style while living in France shortly after WWII. Spectrum IV (2015) recalls his classic juxtapositions of color, a composition of 12 thin rectangular panels fitted together to make a stunning rainbow pattern.

Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum IX, 2014, acrylic on canvas, twelve joined panels, 107 3/4 x 96".

Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum IX (2014). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

But this piece is set apart in a separate bay, just past the entrance of the gallery. A few others, Diptych: Green Blue (2015), Blue Black Red (2015), and Black Over Yellow (2015), focus on the stolid juxtaposition of color and shape.

Ellsworth Kelly, <em>Diptych: Green Blue</em> (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

Ellsworth Kelly, Diptych: Green Blue (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

Ellsworth Kelly, <em>Blue Black Red </em>(2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Black Red (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

But what stands out at Marks are the suite of white and black monochromatic shaped canvases. The result of this extremely reduced palette is a very particular effect: The wall-filling paintings collide and speak with the overall space itself—the white cube.

In the exhibition catalogue, scholar Branden Joseph shares this quote from the artist: “The wall is part of the painting and always has been.”

White Diagonal Curve (2015), a crescent-shaped, white canvas set against an all-white partition wall, seems to be part of its background, and yet escaping from it as well, outwardly moving in all directions.

Ellsworth Kelly, White Diagonal Curve, 2015, oil on canvas 51 1/2 x 120″.

Ellsworth Kelly, White Diagonal Curve (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

The looming size of these late works may draw false interpretations, suggesting an ominous mood reflective of the artist’s death. But, as Joseph suggests (and Yves-Alain Bois suggested before him), Kelly’s constant objective was always a studied aloofness. “Kelly has repeatedly connected his work’s engagement with its architectural support to his quest for impersonality,” he writes.

The emphatic structural character of these achromatic works simply emphasizes what was always there.

Last Paintings

Ellsworth Kelly, White Over Black III (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks..

Last Paintings

Ellsworth Kelly, White Form Over Black (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

Last Paintings

Ellsworth Kelly, White Form on Black (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks..

Last Paintings

Ellsworth Kelly, White Angle Over Black (2015). Image courtesy Matthew Marks.

Rounding off a seven-decade-long career of painting non-figurative form, these hard-edge abstractions above all encapsulate Kelly’s strong commitment to craft, simplicity, and aesthetic harmony.

“Ellsworth Kelly Last Paintings” will be on view at Matthew Marks Gallery, from May 5 through June 25, 2017.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics