The Power of Design Through the Lens of Ellsworth Kelly


Ellsworth Kelly, Red Relief, 2009. Private collection. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy the artist. © Ellsworth Kelly.

As an educator, I find lessons of modern-day simplicity to be a great starting point for fine arts students. The field of design revolves around how art interacts with the tasks and perceptions of everyday life. Design isn’t just aesthetically pleasing; it also serves an everyday purpose. I believe art should be people-focused and design should serve as a platform for which dialogue and discussion is facilitated. Perceptions of light, color, and space aid in constructing a design and in developing visual literacy. In addition to written/verbal literacy, I think visual literacy is an integral skill one should possess.

The work of Ellsworth Kelly, currently on view in the Panel Paintings 2004-2009  is interesting to consider in relation to the subject of design and human interaction. Kelly, whose works I see as brushing between minimalism and post-painterly abstraction, has a clear and calibrated eye for design. Having formerly been a graphic designer, and currently an art educator, I see elements of two-dimensional and three-dimensional design as imperative when understanding Kelly’s artistic process. Design in itself best communicates with the viewer when clarity is achieved, an element Kelly has mastered. Formations of line, symmetry, and composition aid in developing a clear message within his pieces–these messages, however simple in design, evoke a tapestry of complexity within their meaning and interpretation.

It is this eye for simplicity in design that I hope future learners adapt and refer to throughout their art making process. Artistic intelligence lies in being able to condense such rich information into its purest, simplest form–to capture it, and still be able to communicate it to the audience.

Who are some other artists you believe share Kelly’s approach to aesthetic simplicity?

Is visual literacy an important skill for all learners to possess, not solely art students?


Fatima Elgarch, K12 Education Intern

Putting the Process on the Wall: Ellsworth Kelly Maquette

 A small installation of works on paper by Ellsworth Kelly was recently installed in conjunction with Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009, currently on view through September 22Included in these works is a small maquette by Kelly, done in preparation for a 2004 sculpture commissioned by the Phillips, shown below.

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly's Maquette for EK 927, 2005. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly’s Maquette for EK 927, 2005. Mixed media, 9 x 11 x 5/8 in. (22.9 x 27.9 x 1.6 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Acquired 2006. Photo: Joshua Navarro

To commemorate the new courtyard opening in 2006, The Phillips Collection commissioned Kelly to create a sculpture specifically conceived for the museum’s new courtyard as a gift of Phillips Trustee Margaret Stuart Hunter. Mounted at an unusual angle, Untitled (EK 927) (pictured below) is a large-scale bronze curve, perched elegantly on the west wall of the Hunter Courtyard. It reflects Kelly’s enduring interest in uncovering the reductive essentials in natural forms. There is a timeless and mysterious quality to the sculpture—a simple form of line, volume, and shadow that seems to defy gravity.

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled, 2005. Bronze. 17 in x 63 3/16 in x 1 in; 297.22572 cm x 160.46704 cm x 2.54 cm. Commissioned in honor of Alice and Pamela Creighton, beloved daughters of Margaret Stuart Hunter, 2006. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled (EK 927), 2005. Bronze. 17 in x 63 3/16 in x 1 in (297.2 x 160.5 x 2.5 cm). Commissioned in honor of Alice and Pamela Creighton, beloved daughters of Margaret Stuart Hunter, 2006. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The sculpture and its corresponding maquette were both accessioned into the collection in 2006. You may be asking why the Phillips decided to acquire the model Kelly made for the sculpture and accession it into the collection as a work of art in itself.  Maquettes, by nature, are simply stand-ins for the real thing, and are frequently discarded once the installation of art is complete. When they are created by an artist, however, maquettes reveal much about the artistic process involved in creating a larger-scale work. This particular maquette was presented in 2006 to then-director Jay Gates and Ms. Hunter by Kelly himself, who was at the museum overseeing the installation of the sculpture, as a gift in honor of the collaboration. Accessioning the maquette into the collection was a conscious decision by staff to highlight Kelly’s creative process and the personal relationship between Kelly and the Phillips. As we honor Kelly during the year of his 90th birthday, we wanted to emphasize our history with the prolific artist and shed light on the process behind one of our most important works by featuring the maquette alongside the fully-realized works currently on display.

On a side note, this isn’t the only time a maquette for a sculpture has been accessioned into the museum’s collection. In 2012, a model for Seymour Lipton’s Oracle (1966), a bronze and Monel sculpture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was accessioned into our permanent collection. Lipton is well represented at the Phillips with sculpture and drawings, but this model was an important acquisition to the curatorial team as it reveals the artistic intent behind a finished product, as well as draws interesting comparisons to other works by the artist in our collection.

Seymour Lipton, Model for "Oracle" 1965. Nickel, silver, and bronze on Monel height: 15 inches (base: 4 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 2 7/8 x 3 1/2 in.) Gift of Alan Lipton, 2012.

Seymour Lipton, Model for “Oracle” 1965. Nickel, silver, and bronze on Monel height: 15 inches (base: 4 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 2 7/8 x 3 1/2 in.) Gift of Alan Lipton, 2012.

Controlled Disorganization: Ellsworth Kelly at the Barnes

sculpture for a large wall by Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923). Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1956–1957. Anodized aluminum, 104 panels, 136 x 782 1/2 x 12 in. (345.4 x 1987.6 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, 1998. © Ellsworth Kelly. Image: © 2013 The Barnes Foundation

Earlier this month, my family and I decided to go on a little getaway to Philadelphia specifically to see the newly revamped Barnes Foundation. The Barnes is one of several major art galleries like MoMA, Detroit Institute of the Arts, the National Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection celebrating Ellsworth Kelly’s 90th birthday by hosting exhibitions of his work.

Having spent many a lunch break exploring the Phillips’s Kelly exhibition (one of the main perks of being an intern in an art museum) I was definitely interested in seeing the Barnes’s exhibition as a means of comparison. The combination of the two shows, and the differences between them, gave me a unique perspective on an artist whose work I was mostly unfamiliar with until recently.

Walking into the exhibition at the Barnes, the first piece you see is Sculpture for a Large Wall, and this was my favorite piece in the exhibit. The sculpture is massive, taking up the entire back wall of the gallery space, and is composed of 104 aluminum panels colored red, yellow, blue, and black. These panels are lined up in various positions along four rows. One of the reasons why this was undeniably my favorite piece in the show was because of its sense of chaos and mayhem, which juxtaposes the serenity and calmness of the other pieces. The panels are not neatly lined up, but rather pointed in every direction, making it feel like a controlled disorganization, which contrasts to the element of perfection seen in his other pieces. Seeing this piece side by side with his other work gave me perspective on the breadth of his work and his unmistakable style.

And, because I always like to end my posts with an interesting tidbit, this was the first time since 1998 that Sculpture for a Large Wall was shown in Philadelphia. The work was commissioned by the Philadelphia Transportation Building in 1957 where it hung until renovations forced its removal in 1998.

Hannah Hoffman, Marketing Intern