Ellsworth Kelly: the Complexity of Simple Art

Ellsworth Kelly

There is a common denominator when looking at the most well-renowned artists. We see a level of intricacy that warrants a standing ovation from artists like Picasso and da Vinci—and rightfully so. But it is worth highlighting the artists who create visually simplistic pieces that deserve the same applause.


Ellsworth Kelly was a pioneer in abstract art, transcending normalcy and breaking boundaries in the conventions of abstract art. He is famous for bright, bold colors and is one of the first artists to change the shape of the canvas. Unlike Van Gogh’s impressively complex paintings with thousands of tiny paint strokes, Kelly’s work, along with many other abstract artists, carries a deeper meaning than what meets the eye.

Horizontal Line features an off-white canvas and a black horizontal line that takes up half the canvas. Casual viewers may look at this piece and feel there is nothing more to it than the line. And they would be correct. But what they do not know is how this is a motif in Kelly’s creations. The foundation of his work included lines, shapes, and figures. Each piece Kelly created and displayed is meant to feel natural—as if it is some happenstance you find in nature.


Yellow Piece is one of Kelly’s more notable and groundbreaking works of art. This is one of the first times he created a painting where the wall became not just the stabilizer, but also the background. Yellow Piece is shaped to where the entire piece is its own rather than within the confines of a frame. Similarly, Kelly also designed Yellow Curve, a triangular stand-alone piece resembling more of an object than a painting.

Like neoclassical art filled with small and delicate details, there are common denominators for abstract art, too. Most of which is the rhetoric, “I could do that.” Because at first glance, most abstract art, especially Ellsworth Kelly’s work, looks like something a commoner could create.

Tableau Vert, one of the more prominent pieces in his collection, is a square canvas completely painted a monochromatic green. Once again, you could look at the piece and ponder, “How hard can it be to create that?” But the feeling behind Kelly’s art is unique and irreplaceable. The different hues of green are reminiscent of common elements of everyday life—grass, trees, leaves, bushes, and gardens. That’s the beauty of abstract art. There are motifs hidden behind simple shapes and bright colors.

Assortment of Kelly

Kelly’s creations did not stop at reformed canvases; his work falls under a variety of media. In 2015, the same year he died, Kelly gifted his design of Austin to Blanton Museum so it could hopefully be brought to life. Austin resembles a chapel-like structure and its design was inspired by Byzantine and Romanesque art. The front entrance features a hard-to-miss display of rainbow stain glass windows—reminiscent of Kelly’s Spectrum IX and Color Panels for a Large Wall. Austin opened to the public in 2018 and is the perfect tribute to Kelly’s seven-decade-long career.

As we all know, art is more than just a visual. It’s a feeling. It’s emotional. Sometimes you can stare at a painting such as  The Starry Night for hours, gazing at it like a child watching their favorite show. Sometimes you can float past a painting like it’s a grocery store item you don’t need but might want next time—it is always something you’ll remember in the back of your mind. 

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