With the passing of Ellsworth Kelly, who died on Sunday at 92, we have lost an artist of extraordinary creativity with a genius for crossing generic boundaries and defying characterizations.
While I was privileged to confer upon him an honorary doctorate of fine arts at Brandeis University in 2013, it was Kelly who gave me and our entire community of art lovers the more precious gift: His insights about painting and his long and varied life pursuing his passion.
Kelly's connection with the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis goes back to the very beginning of that extraordinary institution. The Rose was founded in 1961 and famously launched with a $50,000 gift that stipulated a ceiling of $5,000 for any individual work. Founding Director Sam Hunter used this gift to acquire works by Warhol, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Johns, Rosenquist — and Kelly. Kelly's iconic work Blue White is part of the Rose's core collection. A stunning example of his ability to express shape, form, and color, it hangs alongside its fellows, a striking symbol of individual brilliance and American invention to all who walk into the Rose. This resplendent specimen of Kelly's early minimalism draws students away from their textbooks and visitors from around the world to see the real thing. It reminds us of the importance of art in everyday life and especially on college campuses, ever more in need of art's healing and art's provocation.
The day before receiving his honorary degree, Kelly sat in front of Blue White and delivered a stirring gallery talk to a packed museum audience, who hung on his every word. In many ways, Kelly's acceptance of the degree and his talk at the Rose were the final celebratory events in the relaunch and renaissance of the Rose in the first years of this decade. That same year, Kelly received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award for artistic achievement that our country awards.
His story is an inspiration from beginning to end. A veteran from the "Ghost Army" during World War II, which used inflatable tanks, trucks and other elements of subterfuge to mislead Axis forces, Kelly pursued his art studies in America under the GI Bill. Attending the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he saw for the first time the simplified natural forms of Brancusi, Giacometti, Picabia, and others. He began to push boundaries as he pushed himself — a painter, a sculptor, and a printmaker. As he explained to our assembled students, art historians, and fans, he allowed himself to go where his art took him; not where others expected him to go. If he defied easy characterization, it was because he found categories uninteresting while he found creating endlessly fascinating.
The next day, just before placing the doctoral hood over his head, I read the words that I believe even more strongly today than I did then: "Your reflection of form and relationships in your work is a shining example of how art should be integrated into spaces, places, and the world around us." I told him "how proud we are to be in your presence." Then, at age 90 and even in need of an oxygen tube, Kelly turned to wave energetically to the crowd of thousands. As he shook my hand, he said, "And tomorrow I will be back in my studio."
Fred Lawrence is Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School and the former President of Brandeis University.