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American artist Ellsworth Kelly turned 90 last May, and there's been much celebration. President Obama, yesterday, presented him with the National Medal of Arts. Museums across the country are showing his work; sculptures, prints, paintings on view in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit. In Washington, D.C., the Phillips Collection is featuring his flat geometric canvases, often layered one canvas on top of another.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg found the work baffling then boisterous.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: At a gallery in Los Angeles last winter, a friend and I shrugged - OK, maybe scoffed - at the Kellys. And then began crouching and bending to inspect the shadows that his layerings cast on the gallery walls. It was fun.
At the Phillips Collection the other day, museum director Dorothy Kosinski and I did the same thing.
DOROTHY KOSINKSKI: With the shadows he introduces maybe another color, a gray, and certainly another dimension.
STAMBERG: And the shadow it casts dark and light gray it's two-toned.
KOSINKSKI: And almost reads like a box, doesn't it? How did he achieve that?
STAMBERG: The Phillips is showing seven Kelly works. At each end of the gallery, big black and white pieces, white rectangle layered like a sandwich at a slight angle on top of a black square. On another wall, a big Square covered in yellow oil paint, with a skinny red rectangle along its top. Four separate panels on the opposite wall: small horizontal green rectangle, blue vertical rectangle, black square, smaller orange/red square.
Dorothy Kosinski says Kelly is one of the major 20th century American painters. She sees perfection in these panels.
KOSINKSKI: The entire wall becomes part of a very demanding, rigorous and yet terrifically exuberant composition. Isn't it exuberant?
STAMBERG: I walked into this room and thought, ah, its so cheerful.
STAMBERG: And also I felt serene in it.
KOSINKSKI: I think those are beautiful thoughts to have.
STAMBERG: Ellsworth Kelly was not feeling so cheerful that day. He had been at a Phillips' dinner the night before, felt ill the next morning, and went back home to Spencertown, New York. So he missed the little 90th birthday party the museum put together - champagne, birthday cake, brave singing.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Ellsworth. Happy birthday...
STAMBERG: I caught up with him a week later, by phone.
ELLSWORTH KELLY: I don't really talk about my work unless I'm with it.
STAMBERG: Well, he will in a bit. But we began with someone else's work. I asked him to look through a book for a famous Renoir.
KELLY: I'm trying to find it. No, here. It's after the Matisse, I think, isn't it?
STAMBERG: It's Page 109.
KELLY: I have to put my glasses on. OK.
STAMBERG: Renoir's joyful, jubilant "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" from 1881, it's the Phillip's best-loved work; sun-dappled men and women, finishing off a delicious meal and wine on a riverside porch.
KELLY: The happiness that he was able to get in to the picture is very visible. I don't know if Americans have painted a picture quite like this.
STAMBERG: You know, at the Phillips, Dorothy Kosinski and I walked into the room with your painting and we both agreed that they made us feel very happy. She used the word exuberant.
KELLY: Well, that's wonderful.
STAMBERG: As a very young artist, Ellsworth Kelly tried painting like Renoir and others, real life scenes - people, landscapes. He shifted in the 1950s to his crisp abstract shapes - no narratives, nothing going on but color.
KELLY: I learned my color in Europe. I've always been a colorist, I think. I started when I was very young, being a bird watcher, fascinated by the bird colors.
STAMBERG: Kelly came back from studies in Paris with a series of flat, geometric panels in the color spectrum - the rainbow colors that you see when light hits a prism,
KELLY: Each color had to have its own canvas. I feel I like color in its strongest sense. I don't like mixed colors that much, like plum colors or deep, deep colors that are hard to define. I liked red, yellow, blue, black and white, was what I started with.
STAMBERG: And he's still at it. Ellsworth Kelly has been making his layered, flat-colored, geometric panels for 60 years now. When he began, other young artists were busy with abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollack and his ropes of thick paint was the man of the moment. Kelly was not.
KELLY: There was absolutely no response for a long time. It was a very hard job, doing it all myself, getting to where I am.
STAMBERG: It wasn't until the 1960s when the pop artists - Warhol, Lichtenstein - came along, with their strong, clear colors, that Ellsworth Kelly got attention. His persistence over the years has a sweet goal.
KELLY: I've always wanted to feel like I wanted to give people joy. And I like the fact that you say when you came to see the show at the Phillips that you felt like I want you to feel.
STAMBERG: Tell us what is the best thing about being 90.
KELLY: Oh, dear.
KELLY: I feel like I'm 20 in my head. My paintings make me feel good. But my body is not the same as it was when I was 20, 40 or 60. And I just feel like I can live on. I hope I can reach a hundred. I think today if you just keep doing, keep working that maybe that's possible.
STAMBERG: By the time the Phillips show closes in September, it's a good bet that in his Upstate New York studio Ellsworth Kelly will have produced more new, and often joy-giving works.
In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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