Can a life ever be long enough? When I first met Ellsworth Kelly, the great New York artist, he was 89 years old. The venue? The opening night party of his latest show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, far from being a hackneyed retrospective, the exhibition showcased a relatively unknown chapter of the famously abstract artist’s repertoire: his figurative plant drawings. There was much yet to be discovered and celebrated nearly nine decades into his life.
A year later, in June 2013, I met Ellsworth again, this time at his studio in Spencertown, N.Y., tucked among the rolling, sunny landscapes of the Hudson Valley. He had recently turned 90. On the occasion of his birthday dinner, he told me, his good friend, the soprano Renée Fleming, serenaded him and improvised operatic trills around the other partygoers’ steady “Happy birthday to you” melody.
Before our interview, which was followed by a filmed conversation with his friend and art patroness, Agnes Gund, in his bright and commodious studio, Ellsworth led me down the hallway to another large room. Whereas the former held blank canvases at the ready, the latter presented recently-finished works he hadn’t yet shown to his gallerist. I was prohibited from taking photos and discussing those pieces, but his delight in revealing these secrets was delicious and infectious, the twinkle in his intense blue eyes almost illicit; it was thrilling to co-conspire with Ellsworth Kelly. That he was still creating monumental works at his age — or works of any size, frankly — was both astounding and, paradoxically, nothing to be surprised by. Once in Ellsworth’s presence, you wouldn’t think this all could end, even though the notion is absurd. His oxygen tank and the tubes in his nostrils, the consequence of long-term exposure to artists’ chemicals, were the only clear indicator of his mortality. Despite occasional stumbles in memory, he recalled in stunning and intricate detail the stories of his art career, which began during the Second World War. I was lucky enough to hear it firsthand, and my company was lucky enough to film it for posterity.
We recently were honored when the team behind The Broad, Los Angeles’ recently-opened contemporary art museum, asked if they could use an excerpt from our interview as part of their website and audioguide for “Green Angle,” (1970) in which Ellsworth said: “The forms I use, you see the form and the color together, is what the content is, and that’s the experience; and it’s for the viewer to investigate what they do.”
Last night I learned that Ellsworth had passed away at the age of 92. That’s a long life by normal standards, but Ellsworth was exceptional in every regard; I am curious to know what else might have come from his hand with the luxury of more time. But it is not to be. More than ever, I am grateful for the record New York States of Mind created, and am happy to share it again with our readers, both here and on our YouTube page.
One final story: After we finished recording the interview, Ellsworth drove me in his car (a sleek silver Mercedes for the superlatively stylish gentleman) the short distance from his studio to the home he shared with his husband, Jack Shear. Just beyond the house, in what might insufficiently be termed a “backyard,” is a large open field with a mammoth sculpture looming over the space, framed by trees. Called “Untitled (2008),” this sweeping stainless steel and aluminum column creates various ingenious optical illusions from different vantage points. Ellsworth told me of one nighttime stroll he took around the property, in a darkness that is achieved only in the country, away from ubiquitous city lights. Walking around in near blindness was somewhat disorienting, and Ellsworth wasn’t sure of his positioning relative to the sculpture. Suddenly the clouds moved, moonlight hit the sculpture’s aluminum finish, and “it seemed to spring from the ground.” It appeared, he said, to be a bridge between the Earth and the sky.