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Outliers Together: Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Gund

The relationship between artist and collector is sometimes reduced to the basest symbiosis: the artist produces, the collector purchases. It would be a gross understatement to categorize Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Gund using these reductive terms; they are also great friends. Mr. Kelly is the irrepressible American painter, sculptor and printmaker who, at 90 years old, continues to produce new art in his Hudson Valley studio. “I like paintings a little bit bigger than me,” he explains, but admits, “I’m having a little trouble now raising my arm all the time to make them bigger than me, so they’re getting smaller … but I’m trying to still do it.” One of the masters of Color Field painting — his signature and enduring style that weaves through the other media in which he works — he has been a fixture on the New York art scene since his first exhibition, in 1956, at the Betty Parsons Gallery; his renown later spread internationally.

Ms. Gund, 75, cultivated her love and extensive knowledge of art through graduate study at Harvard University; her ability to recall individual works, artists and galleries in conversation is lightning fast, pulled from seemingly inexhaustive reserves. After earning her M.A. in art history, she relocated from Cambridge to New York City, and in 1976 joined the Museum of Modern Art’s board of trustees. She would eventually rise to the positions of MoMA’s Chairman, Vice President and President, and served in that last capacity from 1991 to 2002, overseeing plans for the museum’s major redesign and expansion, which was completed in 2004. Additionally, she is the founder, in 1977, of Studio in a School, a program which sends professional artists into New York City's public school system to provide an enriched arts education to young students.

Ms. Gund’s 1975 purchase of one of Mr. Kelly’s totem sculptures — from the “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculptures” exhibit at the Leo Castelli Gallery — brought them into each other’s orbit for the first time. (This would be the first of many of Mr. Kelly’s works Ms. Gund would acquire over the decades; though she has donated some of her holdings, her collection currently boasts 12 Kellys across several media.) A year later, they met in person at Kirk Varnedoe’s “Modern Portraits: The Self and the Other,” show at the Wildenstein Gallery. They have been friends since. Both agreed to sit with New York States of Mind for a conversation between friends. Their mutual affection is evident from a reflexive pat on the knee when laughing at a joke, and the occasional finishing of each other’s sentences. She wants to gush about genius of his color sense and the breadth and depth of his influence; he prefers to discuss her generosity and vision for the arts. What ensues is a 90-plus minute discussion that encompasses a bit of both, as well as reflections on life in New York.

Even after many decades in NYC, both seem to approach the metropolis with a hint of an outsider’s paradigm. Ms. Gund, a Cleveland, O.H. native, says, “coming East was a real revelation for me.” Mr. Kelly was born in Newburgh, N.Y., but six years spent post-WWII in Paris on the G.I. Bill, which shaped his psyche and aesthetic — “European color, at that time, was very different than American color, with the Abstract Expressionists here there was muted color, but nothing like color like ... the red dress” worn by the New York States of Mind reporter. The brilliantly colorful fish in the Jacques Cousteau films Mr. Kelly viewed in French cinemas further inspired his bold chromatic usage. He returned to New York with spectrum collages of blocks of color (with hints of Piet Mondrian, Fernand Leger and Vladimir Kandinsky), and had to defend his use of color: “When I started using color, and used all the colors, and when I came back [to America] and I had my first show at Betty Parsons in ‘56, I put in a lot of pictures that I had done in Europe … people would come [to the show] and say ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ and I felt embarrassed that I had to apologize for using bright colors, and I said, ‘I want some joy in what I do!’” Since 1970, Mr. Kelly has split his time between New York City, where he maintains an apartment, and the Hudson Valley, where he and his longtime partner, Jack Shear, reside. His ensuing aesthetic has shown a mixed influence that is not singularly rooted in one location or the other. Ms. Gund thinks Mr. Kelly’s color is purely New York. She says to Mr. Kelly, “So I think that ‘state of mind’ of you being completely able to paint in a city and paint in the country, and see both as giving you so many ideas and so many ways to make your paintings … and also I think the colors that you use seem to me to be really related to the colors of people in the city, in New York [City], which, it’s so multicultural, and [has] so many different colors of people and things, that you really relate to that as well as to the nature.” Mr. Kelly seems to appreciate the dichotomy: “New York [City] is moving all the time. And it sparks. Everyone is connected, or trying to connect. But in the country, you have your own space.” Another of their strongest shared ideas is the essentialness of needing to see art in person. In this, they have led by example. Ellsworth recalls that, as an art student in Boston “in 1947, we would come down to New York to the [Museum of] Modern [Art] to see what was going on in Europe.” The circular nature of student becoming master and later exhibiting (and inspiring future students) within the same institution is one of the more poignant aspects of Mr. Kelly’s career. Ms. Gund has championed these shows, and was a major contributor to Mr. Kelly’s recent MoMA exhibition, in honor of his 90th birthday.

Mr. Kelly imparts, “No matter how good printing can become, it’s a smaller scale. My paintings have to be seen, I think, because otherwise, it looks like a postage stamp; a large postage stamp. And scale is important because” he creates larger than lifesize works. In fact, his piece “Sculpture for a Large Wall” is part of MoMA’s collection, but so monumental (11' 5" x 65' 5" x 28" ) that dedicated exhibition space is rarely available to accommodate the work; the Barnes Foundation recently exhibited the piece, the first time the institution has shown any contemporary work of art.

Ms. Gund, who knows a thing or two about museums and art education, states, “The most important thing for people today in museums, and going to museums, is that they learn about the art by seeing it. And that you that you can’t replace it with the computer and the Internet. You just, no matter how much you want to educate people, you have to see the real thing; it’s very much different than seeing it on the Internet. I think you can get a sense of what you’re going to see [on the Internet], but the impact is much greater when you see it [in person].” Mr. Kelly concurs, “Museums are very popular. The Met is always full, and the Modern is extra full. People are hungry, and art is taking over a lot of young people.” In this state, the art opportunities about. Ms. Gund concludes, “I think my ‘state of mind’ of New York is having it all. You have everything here that you can ask for. You have the density, and the wideness and the atmosphere.” And with that, it was time for lunch, home-cooked by Mr. Shear and served in his and Mr. Kelly’s home; one of the perks of friendship. For a deeper look at their conversation, and to hear Mr. Kelly describe his artistic process in his own words, view the New York States of Mind short film, above.

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