Artist Ellsworth Kelly, Master Of Colorful Abstraction, Dies At 92 : The Two-Way Kelly was recognized as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. He died Sunday afternoon, leaving behind pieces in nearly every major museum of modern art.
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Artist Ellsworth Kelly, Master Of Colorful Abstraction, Dies At 92

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Artist Ellsworth Kelly, Master Of Colorful Abstraction, Dies At 92

Artist Ellsworth Kelly, Master Of Colorful Abstraction, Dies At 92

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's take a moment to remember one of the greatest American artists of the past century. Ellsworth Kelly died at home on Sunday at age 92. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on Kelly's life and on the art he leaves behind.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Ellsworth Kelly started his artistic career in France, but not wearing a beret and standing behind an easel. He was in a U.S. Army uniform during World War II. Kelly served in a special unit made mostly of artists. Their job was to fool the Germans into thinking there were more Allied forces than there actually were. Kelly told NPR in 2007 they did it partly by building fake tanks and trucks from wood and burlap.

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ELLSWORTH KELLY: But later they were made in rubber, inflatable. And they looked like the real thing.

ULABY: After the war, Kelly lived in Paris. Art historian Sarah Rich says he'd walk around snapping photographs.

SARAH RICH: Not photographs of famous places like the Eiffel Tower or anything like that, but photographs just of an alleyway.

ULABY: Or a plain old window or the side of an unassuming building.

RICH: And would see in that photograph a square.

ULABY: Kelly would use that black square as the basis of a painting. Now, you don't need a photo to paint a black square. You just need a ruler. But Ellsworth Kelly wanted to bring scraps of the world almost mystically onto his canvas. He pulled out shadows and shapes down into abstractions, monochromes, just one really strong, pure bright color. Kelly said that came from his boyhood in New Jersey surrounded by nature.

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KELLY: I've always been a colorist, I think. I started when I was very young, being a birdwatcher fascinated about the bird colors.

ULABY: The way Kelly used colors made them feel almost alive. Just to face a giant, red rectangle by Ellsworth Kelly is to come to red in a fresh and profound way.

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KELLY: I feel that I like color in its strongest sense. Red, yellow, blue, black and white was what I started with.

ULABY: When Kelly moved to New York in the 1950s, abstract expressionism was all the rage. He did not fit in, says Sarah Rich, with all the cooler-than-cool artists flinging paint at canvases or dripping it or standing in it.

RICH: He was really not interested in their corny expressionism and epic self-importance. All of that stuff just seemed burdensome and dull.

ULABY: Forging a new aesthetic language in that environment was not easy, Kelly said.

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KELLY: It was a very hard job, doing it all myself, getting to where I am.

ULABY: Where Ellsworth Kelly was when he died was a universally recognized master of contemporary art. He influenced minimalism and pop art with his bold, spare paintings, drawings and sculptures, which are in virtually every major museum of modern art. When Ellsworth Kelly was 90, NPR asked what he enjoyed most about being very old.

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KELLY: Oh, dear (laughter). I feel like I'm 20 in my head. My painting makes me feel good. And I just feel like I can live on. If you just keep doing, keep working, that - maybe that's possible.

ULABY: Ellsworth Kelly came about as close as anyone could to making that possibility real. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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