Taking Shape

Ellsworth Kelly’s legacy of abstraction is all over Washington

Happy 90 years of life, painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly! If we knew your works were coming to the Phillips Collection in celebration of your May 31st birthday, we’d have baked a minimalist, monochromatic cake (which would be really easy to frost). Instead this month, the gallery has assembled a group of seven of Kelly’s recent pieces — large-scale panel paintings made between 2004 and 2009. The works are unmistakably Kelly in their abstract-expressionist punch: Several feature his distinctive pairing of two bright colors on one canvas; others simply drench squares and rectangles in monochromatic hues (such as 2007’s “Green Blue Black Red”).

It’s easy to argue that color-field paintings such as Kelly’s have no narrative. His work is a challenging experiment in how viewers engage with simplicity, but a look at Kelly’s progression as an artist does reveal a story of sorts. Ahead of a trip to the Phillips, check out his earlier pieces on permanent view around town.

Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW; through Sept. 22, $12; 202-387-2151. (Dupont Circle)

‘Stele II’ (1973), left
This large, inch-thick slab looks as soft as velvet. Its outdoor environment causes the simple shape to generate ever-changing shadows.
At the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; daily, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)

‘Blue on White’ (1961), center
Kelly isn’t all bright blocks on blocks. In the early ’60s, some of his works had a softer edge, like this one, which reads like a cartoon speech bubble with nothing to say but its color.
At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW; daily, free; 202-633-7970. (Gallery Place)

‘Red Yellow Blue V’ (1968), right
On the museum’s third floor hangs a canvas representing another of Kelly’s trademark styles— a large-scale strip soaked with vivid blocks of red, yellow and blue. Variations would find their way through the next 40-plus years of Kelly’s career.
At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; daily, free; 202-633-1000. (L’Enfant Plaza)

Shauna Miller is managing editor at the Atlantic's CityLab. You can hit her up on Her.



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