Ellsworth Kelly, whose deceptively simple use of color and shape made him one of the past century’s most significant and enduring abstract artists, died Sunday at his home in Spencertown, N.Y. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by his New York dealer, the Matthew Marks Gallery. The cause was not disclosed, but Mr. Kelly used an oxygen tank in recent years because of respiratory ailments.
Mr. Kelly developed his artistic vision soon after World War II, when abstract expressionism was emerging as the dominant movement of the time.
He rejected the bold, impulsive styles of, say, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, which seemed to be an outward expression of the artist’s ego. Instead, Mr. Kelly’s work was more orderly and observant, based on color, control and quietude.
“I didn’t want an art that was so subjective,” he told the New York Times in 1996. “I wanted to get away from the cult of the personality.”
His paintings, often made in primary colors and sometimes on shaped canvases, adhered to no style or school. It took years before the art world came around to recognizing Mr. Kelly and his celebration of the purity of form.
He held odd jobs, including as a janitor and postal clerk, before he had his first solo show in New York in his 30s.
In 1959, several of his paintings were included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art, along with other rising artists, such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson and Frank Stella. Mr. Kelly would remain one of the major artistic figures of his age until his death.
His work prefigured several prominent artistic styles, such as color field painting and minimalism, yet Mr. Kelly always stood apart from other movements. He preferred to forge an independent vision, looking for inspiration in paintings from the Renaissance, in Romanesque architecture and in the work of earlier masters such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
“Ellsworth Kelly created an art of spare, authoritative and infinitely refined forms, Matissean in their intelligent joy of color, on the basis of constant drawing from the observed world,” critic Robert Hughes wrote in his 1997 book “American Visions.” “He wanted to imbue his art with an ‘object quality,’ neither abstract not figurative, the thing in itself.”
Nominally an abstract artist, Mr. Kelly nonetheless based his work on everyday objects and scenes, such as the shapes of plants, the patterns of paving stones, the reflections in windows and the shadows under the arch of a bridge.
“My paintings are like fragments of something you see out of the corner of your eye,” he told the Dallas Times Herald in 1987. “You’re not really aware of it, but on some level, you still have a memory of it.”
A shimmering canvas with contrasting blocks of blue and green was, in fact, a closely observed representation of light striking water. In an interview this year with Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Mr. Kelly said his years in postwar Paris were filled with such moments of visual discovery.
“Every night, walking home,” he said, “I would walk down the outside quay and see the lights from the bridges on the water. I would just stand there and look at those reflections, and I thought: I want to do something that looks like this. But I don’t want to do a pointillist painting. I said, I want to do something that flickers.”
Ellsworth Kelly was born May 31, 1923, in Newburgh, N.Y. He grew up in Oradell, N.J. His father was an insurance executive.
From an early age, Mr. Kelly was interested in color, especially as reflected in the natural world. Birdwatching remained a keen interest throughout his life.
He attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before serving in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. His unit went to Europe, where Mr. Kelly helped design camouflage and other elements to deceive enemy troops.
After the war, he studied at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before using the G.I. Bill to move to Paris in 1948.
Across the ocean, the abstract expressionist revolution was in full swing, but it held little interest for Mr. Kelly. During his six years in France, he took art classes and was struck by the simplicity in form he saw during visits to the studios of sculptor Constantin Brancusi and surrealist Jean Arp.
He struck up friendships with other Americans in Paris, including choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage. He borrowed the element of chance that Cage used in his musical compositions and began to paint fleeting moments of shadow and shade. He would choose colors at random to illustrate his shapes, thus turning images from everyday life into bright, seemingly abstract patterns.
“People have called my work elegant,” he once said. “I prefer ‘voluptuous.’ ”
He worked in collage and in monochromatic colors from time to time and, after returning to the United States in 1954, explored lithography and various sculptural media, including wood and metal.
In 1970, Mr. Kelly settled in Spencertown, several hours from New York City, and continued to produce the kind of abstract art that somehow didn’t look alien.
“I don’t invent. It’s not about my signature,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “It’s something about perception. My eye picks up things in nature; I’m interested in the whole thread of what you look at.”
He had major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in 1973, the National Gallery of Art in 1992 and New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1996. His works are in the collections of major museums throughout the world.
He received a commission in the early 1990s from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The resulting installation, in pure white, shows a winglike form that appears about to take off before three rectangular white panels.
In 2013, Mr. Kelly received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama at a White House ceremony.
Survivors include his partner of more than 30 years, Jack Shear of Spencertown; and a brother.
Mr. Kelly was proud of doing all his painting and designs without assistants. Even when the surface of a painting was so controlled that individual brushstrokes could scarcely be seen, everything he produced, he said, was made by his hand.
“I’m interested in perception, in vision, in things that give me a kind of joy,” he said. “I want clarity. I want positive feeling.”