2018年2月26日 星期一

Albrecht Dürer: Portrait of the artist as an entrepreneur

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Dopo lo strepitoso successo di Caravaggio, a Palazzo Reale apre la mostra 'Dürer e il Rinascimento tra Germania e Italia'. Centotrenta capolavori

A polymath of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was a prolific artist, theorist, and writer whose works explored everything from religion to art theory to philosophy. His vast body of work includes altarpieces, portraits, self-portraits, watercolors, and books, but is most celebrated for its astonishing collection of woodcut prints, which transformed printmaking from an artisan practice into a whole new art form. 

Dürer’s woodcuts astonish in scale as much as detail. Through works such as Apocalypse and the Triumphal Arch for Emperor Maximilian I, he created dense, meticulous compositions that were much larger, much more finely cut, and far more complex than any earlier woodcut efforts. With an ambitious tonal and dynamic range, he introduced a new level of conceptual, emotional, and spiritual intensity. His two major woodcut series on Christ’s Passion, named The Large Passion and The Small Passion after their size, are particularly remarkable for their vivid human treatment of the Christian narrative. In his copper engraving, Melancholia I, meanwhile, Dürer created a startling vision of emotional ennui, often cited as a defining early image of a depressive or melancholic state.

Ever inquisitive, Dürer absorbed ideas not only from masters and fellow artists in Germany but also from Italy, while his own influence extended across Europe for generations to come. In this essential TASCHEN introduction, we explore this pioneering figure’s complex practice, his omnivorous intellect, and the key works which shaped his enduring legacy.

British Museum

Here’s a print of the Resurrection of Christ by Dürer http://ow.ly/L2otE‪#‎HappyEaster‬

Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I was born ‪#‎onthisday‬ in 1459. Here’s a portrait by Dürer http://ow.ly/KAQZ6

Maximilian I commissioned Dürer to create this triumphal arch. Read about its conservation http://ow.ly/Kx9Db

Don’t miss Dürer’s spectacular print in our free display in Room 3, closing 16 November http://ow.ly/E1w5w

BBC Radio 4

The first great German logo was the monogram of the artist Albrecht Dürer. He created this woodcut of a rhinoceros from a description having never seen the animal. It's one of several prints described by Neil MacGregor in today's episode of Germany:‪#‎MemoriesOfANation‬:

Dürer: An Artist for All Germans

Neil MacGregor focuses on the work of Dürer (1471-1528), the defining artist of Germany.


Memoirs of Journeys to Venice and the Low Countries by Albrecht Dürer

The original edition of this text was translated into
English by Rudolf Tombo, Ph.D., and published by The
Merrymount Press, Boston, 1913, as part of volume VI of The
Humanist's Library, edited by Lewis Einstein.  It has also
been republished, unabridged, by Dover Publications, Inc.,
in 1995.

Plus Ultra, motto

2004讀人民網後,想多讀點 Durer Wikipedia article "Albrecht Dürer".的東西

「現 今人們僅見世上最早的藏書票當數"刺蝟票"…..約於1450年製作於德國。為當時焦漢斯•科納本斯伯格所用。木刻版畫。約5.5英寸乘7.5英寸大小。   它的票面很有趣———在一隻腳踏落葉口銜野花的健碩刺蝟上方,一綹飄帶上醒目地鐫刻著"謹防刺蝟隨時一吻"的字樣,仿佛在向人們提示與告誡:萬勿毀書 與盜書,否則刺蝟先生必會對你不吝賜刺痛吻……其含蓄、幽默且婉轉,令人過目之後難以忘卻。



希望有機會能讀The Life and Art of Albert Dürer by Erwin Panofsky
Stefano Zuffi 杜勒(Dürer)朱孟勳譯,台北:木馬,2002,發現第107頁有拉丁文未翻譯:

「查理五世的肖像開始流行,如這個寫有格言Plus Ultra 格言的琺瑯別針。」

1952年他前往Aachen參加一場對歐洲歷史有重要影響的典禮:查理五世(Charles V)的加冕大典。…..


Opening 11 Sep, our new Room 3 display will showcase an enormous and elaborate print by Albrecht Dürer http://ow.ly/B1EZV
Explore the enormous and elaborate triumphal arch by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) – one of the largest and most ambitious prints ever produced.
Celebrated German artist Dürer and his team designed this dense and spectacular image on 195 woodblocks which took three years to cut and print, between 1515 and 1518. It was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1486–1519) who took a personally close interest in its production. At over 3.5 metres tall, the incredibly detailed arch is both elaborate and immense. Maximilian harnessed the superlative skills of German woodcut designers and printers to advertise his achievements and dynastic ambition for the Austrian Habsburg family to which he belonged.
The Holy Roman Empire covered the area of modern Germany (as well as parts of Italy, France, Netherlands and central Europe) and was a mesh of church lands, huge princely holdings and independent city states. As Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian was the titular ruler of huge swathes of land from Austria to Spain, but he lacked the power and money to govern them effectively. The three portals of the arch are a reminder of the monuments commissioned by Roman emperors in antiquity as military triumphs, but Maximilian’s considerably cheaper version is printed on paper rather than rendered in sculpture or architecture. It would have been used as wall decoration in the palaces of the courts of Europe to emphasise the power and dynastic ambition of Maximilian and the Habsburgs, with an extensive (and spurious) family tree, and key events from the Emperor’s life.
The display also features other major print projects associated with Maximilian – Dürer’s striking woodcut portrait of the Emperor and his triumphal chariot, which was to form part of a larger work that was never completed.

Albrecht Dürer

Portrait of the artist as an entrepreneur

How the greatest figure of the northern Renaissance invented a new business model
IN JULY 1521, as Albrecht Dürer was packing up to return to Nuremberg from Antwerp, he received a message. Would he come at once to do a portrait of Christian II, King of Denmark, who happened to be in town? Naturally he dropped what he was doing, and went. One did not turn down kings.
Dürer drew Christian’s sad-eyed, fur-swathed figure in a charcoal sketch that still survives, kept in the British Museum. The king then asked, would he paint him in oils? Again Dürer said yes, and did so in record time, a couple of days. When it was done, he found 30 florins pressed into his hand. Soon afterwards, he left for home.
For Dürer, this was an unusual incident. Then 50, he had been for some years the most famous artist in northern Europe; but he was not in essence a court painter. He thought of such people as “parasites”, hanging round great men, waiting for a commission to fall from the lordly lips. He, by contrast, was an independent businessman. He made his money not by grovelling, but by selling copies of the woodcuts and engravings printed, since 1495, at his workshop in the centre of Nuremberg. He was not even a member of a guild, for there were no artists’ guilds in the city: he was a free individual, unaffiliated, making money and a reputation purely for himself.
His journey of 1520-21 was simply a business trip. The bales he was packing up as he left Antwerp had originally been stuffed with printed engravings and woodcuts, loose or bound as books, which he or his agents were selling, or sometimes giving away, all over the Netherlands. Some of these—the “Nemesis”, with Great Fortune teetering on her globe, the “Melancholia 1”, with Melancholy surrounded by instruments of learning, and the “St Jerome”, with the saint sitting snugly in his cell with dog and lion—already qualified as bestsellers. Copies had been sent ahead to be sold before he arrived, building up excitement and publicity.
It was easy to meet demand, however high he fanned it. Though the fundamental work, carefully incised in mirror-image with knife or burin on the wood or copper plate, was every bit as laborious as drawing, it could then fly out in hundreds of copies. Dürer or his assistants just inked a wood or copper plate and cranked a lever. Thanks to the printing press he had bought, he was never in thrall to a publisher; his book of extra-large printed woodcuts of the Apocalypse, which had made his fame in Nuremberg, was the first to be both illustrated and published by a great artist.
He could now replicate and communicate his art. In 1520, for example, he sent a whole set of prints to Raphael’s studio in Rome (he had hoped to impress Raphael himself, but the master had just died), and expected prints of Raphael’s work in return. Artists no longer needed to meet, or ship precious works along dangerous roads, to show each other what they could do. Dürer was not the first artist to exploit the joy of the new medium, but he was the most assiduous and influential—and the best.
Painting, to be honest, rather bored him now. What was the good of slaving away for weeks over a panel, preparing the ground with layers of colour, paying half a stiver (at 24 stivers to the florin) for a porpoise-bristle brush, and two stivers to the boy who ground the colours, and a hefty 12 florins for an ounce of good ultramarine, if only a few could see it? Of course a fine altarpiece, installed in a commercial hub such as Frankfurt or Ghent (where he had silently worshipped Jan van Eyck’s stupendous “Adoration of the Lamb”) could be a grand advertisement for a painter. But the public on the other side of the rood screen often couldn’t see them, or had to pay, as he had to (one stiver to the sacristan) to view them. Painting was noble work, but it seemed suddenly elitist and restricted.
And slow. A good oil portrait, carefully done, might take a week and bring in, on average, ten florins. He could charge that for ten full-sheet prints, which took hardly any time on his press. Compared with that near-instantaneous wonder, the time and effort of painting suddenly seemed intolerable. A huge commission, such as the immense “Madonna of the Rose Garlands” of 1506 that now hangs, much restored, in Prague, could tie him up for months. To lay and scrape the ground alone took many weeks. “My picture… is well finished and finely coloured,” he wrote to a friend when the Madonna was at last complete; “[but] I have got…little profit by it. I could have easily earned 200 ducats in the time.”
Dürer was always keenly aware that he could make much more money by engraving. At a florin a sheet, or 12 stivers a half-sheet, or six stivers for his quarter-sheets of small Passion scenes, he could easily make about 400 florins a year. (The mayor of Nuremberg, at the time, enjoyed a yearly salary of 600 florins.) It was steady money, too, where painting was unpredictable. Dürer concluded, as he wrote to a customer in 1509, that “I shall stick to my engraving, and if I had done so before I should today be a richer man by 1,000 florins.”
Yours for half a florin
The art market was widening rapidly, and he was doing much to widen it single-handed; his wonderful “Knight, Death and the Devil” could now be had for the cost of a rabbit-fur coat; his half-sheet of St Anthony reading, with Nuremberg’s spires piled in the background (see illustration above), for the price of a basket of raisins. His quarter-sheet prints—some devotional, some hotly topical, concerned with comets or monstrous births—were being bought by market-goers, shopkeepers, even artisans, to mark the place in their prayer books, to give as new year cards, or simply to collect, as pieces of art. That had never been possible before; but in Nuremberg, a fine city of 50,000 people, there were plenty of would-be connoisseurs.
People bought from his shop directly, but he had branched out, too. By 1497 he was using Contz Schwytzer to handle his print sales in far-flung places. In Nuremberg Dürer’s aged mother often sold his prints for him, keeping some of the money for her own small needs. To the Frankfurt fair he sent agents, but also his wife Agnes, a plain and untidy young woman on the evidence of his drawings, but apparently a willing business partner, and eventually the sole inheritor of the 6,874-florin estate he left when he died in 1528.
A masterpiece for nothing
This market, however, was evidently not one he could control. Though Dürer set a mental price for his work, based precisely on labour, materials and how good he thought it was (“a wonderful artist should charge highly for his art. No money is too much”), the buyer in the market—like the rich man in his hall, when his portrait was done—could still insist on paying only what he thought it was worth. Sometimes a recipient did not pay for a picture at all, seeming to think it had no cost, or was a present.
Occasionally Dürer used them that way himself, almost frittering them away, piling print on print to get something he wanted. His “works of art” (as he referred specifically to his printed woodcuts and engravings) were often simply exchanged for services, such as the help given by stableboys and servants, or the useful permit granted by the Bishop of Bamberg that enabled him to pass free through the dozens of town gates and customs points along the Rhine.
Art was currency in other ways, too. Hosts were thanked for hospitality with a quick charcoal sketch, which Dürer valued at a florin. Aristocratic or merchant customers bartered his works for rings or jewels, whose value he could only guess. The shrewdest could exploit Dürer’s weakness for sweets (marzipan, candied citron, barley sugar, sugar canes “just as they grow”) and his equal weakness for curiosities—buffalo horns, bits of bamboo, spears from Calicut, monkeys, coral, parrots, or anything at all from Mexico, “the new land of gold”. He would often pay, or barter, over the odds for such things: a whole set of prints (30 florins to him) in exchange for an ivory whistle and “a beautiful piece of porcelain”. The bales that went home from his trips were stuffed with oddities, some of which can still be seen in his pictures.
Dürer’s own estimate of what his work was worth was based, first of all, on his own skill. He knew he was good. He could do things that astounded other artists: as when the great Giovanni Bellini asked to see the “special brushes” with which Dürer painted long tresses of hair, and found they were simply common-or-garden half-stiver ones, floated over the paper to make rippling parallel lines. Dürer could depict like no one else the fur on a dog, the tiles on a roof, the inner life of a clump of grasses; but he could also infuse a scene with horror, piety or drama, through his mastery of human form. When he said he had done a work “carefully”, as he often did, he meant it. His “Praying Hands”, for example (right), wonderfully cross-hatched in white chalk on blue paper, was only one of dozens of preparatory sketches for an altarpiece that contained, in its central panel alone, 13 full-sized figures.
“I shall stick to my engraving, and if I had done so before I should today be a richer man”
His pride in his own work extended to everything he did. (“How pleased we both feel when we think well of ourselves,” he wrote to his best friend, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, “me with my painting, you con vostra learning!”) At a time when artists did not sign their names, he put his, or more often his “AD” monogram, not only on finished pictures but even on the smallest, roughest sketches: an outline of a limb, a scribble of a pillow, a blur of brown and grey brushed quickly in his sketch book as he paused by a roadside quarry on a journey. The monogram was never forgotten.
Again, he was not the first to do this; but no one else remotely did it to his extent. It was a necessary precaution, of course. Artistic rivals had long slandered each other and trashed each other’s work; Dürer’s enemies said he didn’t know how to use colour, for example (“though I’ve shut them up…and everyone now says they have never seen such beautiful colours”). In Venice Dürer thought the Italian painters might try to poison him. But the new technology produced a much more pervasive danger: that an artist’s printed output would be so quickly and thoroughly copied and pirated that his work would be diluted and his good name undermined. Clinging on to authorship, in an age of open access, was as hard then as now.
Dürer twice went to court to defend his sole use of his trademark, in Nuremberg and in Venice, and twice won the case. The guilty parties were made to remove his monogram from their prints. Merely copying “AD”, however, was not adjudged a crime. The crime was to sell the fake print as an original. From then on, therefore, false monogrammed prints “after Dürer” kept appearing, confusing collectors to this day.
A trademark was not the only identifier Dürer put on his pictures. He left lines of commentary on the sketches, and gave the finished engravings elaborate marble tablets explaining his subject and his purpose. He wanted to tell the world that he, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, had done this: that it was made, gemacht, with his genius and effort.
That word seemed to carry a particular weight and satisfaction with him. He made sure it applied to his prints, as well as his paintings. It went along with Gewalt, literally “control”, his special word for exercising his artistic power, first the limner and then the re-creator of everything he surveyed. “The imagination of a good artist”, he wrote, “is full of forms.” In his exquisite landscape watercolours of the 1490s—painted with a sense of light not seen again till Cézanne—his AD is usually placed at the centre top, commanding the scene like the sun.
Joking around once in a letter to Pirckheimer, he called himself (in very choice Venetian) poltrone di pintore, a poor fool of a painter. He didn’t mean it. He knew that in Italy or the Netherlands he moved among masters, was “a gentleman” and was every bit the equal of “Roger” [van der Weyden], “Hugo” [van der Goes] or “Giambellin” [Bellini]. The treatment of artists as international celebrities, rather than mere journeymen, was very new; but Dürer’s engravings had established his reputation all over Europe. In Bruges he was wined and dined on the town, given a tour, accompanied home with many torches and shown “great honour”, as he happily noted. In the Antwerp painters’ hall, “where everything was of silver…as I was being led to the table, everyone on both sides stood up as if I was some great lord.”
This sort of thing still surprised him, but less and less. It was his due. His due, too, was a large pension. Though Dürer was not a court artist, the Emperor Maximilian I—whose magnificent hooked profile he drew in 1518 “in a little room high up in the castle” of Augsburg—had commissioned him to work on designs for a grandiose triumphal arch. All that drawing, Dürer reckoned, ought to be worth 100 florins a year, since “I have served him for three years at my own expense.”
Maximilian, naturally generous beyond his means, granted him that sum for life. It was supposed to come from the imperial tax paid each year by the city of Nuremberg, but Maximilian died too soon to enforce it, and Dürer fought for years to be paid. Financially, he could probably have managed without it. As a matter of self-esteem he could not, and would not.
That self-esteem blazed from his pictures. Before Dürer, an artist would sometimes appear in his paintings half-hidden, as one of the crowd. Dürer, however, painted himself to fill the frame. That was new. He portrayed himself in 1493, just betrothed, holding sea holly (the betrothal flower) and with fashionable slashed sleeves; he painted himself, most famously, in 1500, gazing full-face at the viewer from a nimbus of long flowing hair (see the first illustration of this piece). This was not just the artist as Christ, but the artist as worthy of contemplation, worthy of attention in himself. It is perhaps unsurprising that his earliest surviving picture, drawn in silverpoint on paper at the age of 13 with astonishing facility, was also of himself.
That picture could be identified later because Dürer wrote on it, proudly, “This I drew myself from a mirror in the year 1484, when I was still a child.” With him, pictures were also self-exploration, a record of his feelings and experiences on a certain day at a certain time, the equivalent of the journals and personal letters that men and women were only just beginning to write. “I produced these two faces when I was ill,” he noted over two particularly anguished sketches of the head of the dying Christ, in 1503. “The colour marks where the pain was,” he wrote over a small, later drawing of himself in his underwear, pointing to his side. He drew himself with a headache as a teenager, and as a relatively old man, at 44, he drew his emaciated and completely naked body in savage, unsparing chalk.
Daily minutiae were noted too, since anything might be useful in a painting. A lumpy cushion was drawn several times. He recorded at length, in the Netherlands, the details of the walrus he drew and where it was caught. Most strangely, he also painted a watercolour, and appended a description, of a storm of rain in one of his dreams. The least event was interesting. The most inward, passing thing was of public consequence. Dürer often seems to be carrying on a conversation with the people he imagines looking in on his life, that day or in years to come: constantly updating his progress, his ideas and his image of himself.
Prints, by their nature, were less personal; but he also made sure he featured in those. His AD monogram was seldom confined to a corner. It swung from the Tree of Good and Evil in Eden, as Eve curiously and delicately took the apple from the mouth of the snake. It was scratched on the floor of the room where Gabriel appeared to Mary, and incised into the lid of the stone tomb that awaited the body of Christ. Most shockingly, it appeared on the nailheads hammered into Christ’s hands on the cross. Dürer thus became an actor in the tableaux he had drawn, and especially in the sacred or biblical scenes. He lurked beside the fateful tree. He hurt Christ, or buried him, himself.
Remember me!
There was a Lutheran undertow to this. Dürer took a keen interest in “Dr Martin”, eagerly keeping up with his tracts, and writing pages of agonised invective in his journal when he heard, in May 1521, that Luther had been taken into custody. He remained a stalwart Catholic himself, eagerly queuing to see relics and with his rosary ever in his pocket, but he did not want the church (“the Gates of Hell”, as he thought) laying down the law in his life. Popes, church Fathers, doctrines were all obstacles to “the holy pure gospel” and Christ’s redemptive grace, and they appeared in Dürer’s prints under the hooves of his four apocalyptic horsemen, trampled in the mire.
Already, as if those hated objects had gone, he was making his own way through the Bible in his drawings and engravings. His avatar, with no churchman’s voice to lecture him, could linger in the scenes he chose. This was what the new technology allowed everyone to do. The Vatican could ban books, as it banned Luther’s. But it could not stop Dürer, as a free thinker, reading the ancient sacred words in a new way, and making his pictures accordingly. (He wrote often, too, of “free painting”, in which an inspired artist no longer needed to copy a master and could follow his own rules.) His own interpretation was as good as any bishop’s: merely as a man, his thought and work had value.
Merely as a man, too—despite his spindly pain-racked body, and charcoal Death on his skeleton horse crying “Remember me!” into his ear—he could multiply those thoughts and works endlessly through the new world as well as the old. Perhaps as much as any other craftsman, even in the modern age, Dürer represented human talent and ingenuity made boundless by a machine.

2018年2月25日 星期日

Mark Rothko (1903–1970) IV | The Dark Final Years;No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow)

Shimmering, pulsating color masses characterize the masterpieces of #MarkRothko, who died #otd in 1970 → tsc.hn/49230fb

The New Yorker
Paintings from the period when Rothko abandoned the yellows, bright reds, and oranges of his early-fifties masterworks in favor of blacks, burgundy, deep green.

The Pace gallery shows the Abstract Expressionist’s late work, in which he abandoned high-keyed colors.

Mark Rothko was born on this day in 1903. Works like "No. 13 (White, Red, on Yellow)" epitomized what he said was "the simple expression of the complex thought."

Abstract Expressionism, the style of painting that achieved prominence in the 1950s, encompasses two very different sensibilities.

2018年2月20日 星期二

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015),

The late artist selected 33 stained glass windows for his final work, a…

Ellsworth Kelly in a free exhibition at Tate Liverpool: http://ow.ly/J4rR30aYUhP

Ellsworth Kelly, Méditerranée 1952 © Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly is an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker associated with hard-edge painting, Color Field painting and the minimalist school. Wikipedia

Born: May 31, 1923 (age 92), Newburgh, New York, United States

Kelly, one of the greatest American artists of the past century, has died at 92.
Artist Ellsworth Kelly, Master Of Colorful Abstraction, Dies At 92

Kelly was recognized as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th…


MoMA The Museum of Modern Art
Ellsworth Kelly on hitchhiking to MoMA, his encounter with Picasso, and his Paris years.

American painter’s intense, humming hues were groundbreaking and he’s...

Happy 92nd birthday to American artist Ellsworth Kelly! In 1996, his work filled the Guggenheim's rotunda with color for his career retrospective: http://gu.gg/NCL72

Ellsworth Kelly changed the face of art. At 92, he's still not done

American painter’s intense, humming hues were groundbreaking and he’s building on his experiments in Paris in the 1950s

Ellsworth Kelly at a 2006 exhibition of his work in London.
 Ellsworth Kelly at a 2006 exhibition of his work in London. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

The colours are always brilliant in Ellsworth Kelly’s world – even in the garden. Two hours north of New York, outside a studio built to his own design, is a lawn of such intense and blazing green it could be one of the American painter’s own monochromes. For more than 50 years, Kelly has been creating even, saturated paintings and reliefs whose forceful hues – deep red, soft blue, thrumming yellow – remain burned on the retina long after you leave the white cube. Few artists alive today have done so much to rethink the possibilities of painting. Even fewer have offered viewers such endless joy while doing so.
Kelly is now 92. If you exclude his recourse to an oxygen tank to help him breathe – decades in the studio inhaling turpentine fumes have done a number on his lungs – he is as spry, as sharp, and as hard-working as artists a third of his age. Most days he is in his studio, sometimes painting, sometimes planning an upcoming show at the soon-to-reopen San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He and his partner Jack Shear, a photographer who also directs Kelly’s foundation, show me a few recent purchases. There’s an exquisite little Braque, for one; there’s also a number of south-east Asian lingams, fertility stones lined up like soldiers.
Kelly sits down and opens the first of six planned volumes documenting his complete paintings, reliefs and sculptures. The catalogue raisonné (an art historian’s bible, detailing each work’s provenance, exhibition history, and scholarly apparatus) is being published by the French publishing house Cahiers d’Art and has been edited by Yve-Alain Bois, an authority on abstract painting at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. This first volume concentrates on his six years in Paris, from 1948 to 1953. It makes a strong case that Kelly’s Paris years set the stage for his entire career – and for much of American art to come.
Kelly was born in 1923, in upstate New York, and after studying at the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn he enlisted in the army – joining the 603rd Engineers camouflage battalion, a specialist unit of artists and architects who crafted decoys. After being honorably discharged, he qualified for the GI bill and enrolled at the school of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The life drawing classes helped him, he says, but the approach to modern art did not. “One day in ’46 or ’47, I went down to see a secretary about something, down in the basement of the museum. There was a painting behind her. I said, ‘Is that a Braque?’ And she said yes. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Why isn’t it upstairs?’ She said, ‘Well, they didn’t like it.’”

Ellsworth Kelly speaks during a press preview at the the Barnes Foundation in 2013 in Philadelphia.
 Ellsworth Kelly speaks during a press preview at the the Barnes Foundation in 2013 in Philadelphia. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

Many of his earliest works were proficient, if safe, portraits of himself and his friends – such as a suggestive painting of a young man in the bath, its forms indebted to Gauguin. The gent in the tub was a fellow artist. “We used to hitchhike down from Boston to New York, to go to the Modern [ie the Museum of Modern Art] all the time. So I wasn’t not educated about the School of France. And I’d been in Paris a bit during the war, but then all the museums and galleries were closed. My dream was to go back. And as soon as I could, I did.”

“Picasso said, ‘Do I know you?’ And his chauffeur came back; he was inviting me to come in and sit. I thought, my French was so bad if I get in he’ll kick me out in three minutes.” Picasso sped off. Under the terms of his army scholarship, Kelly was supposed to attend the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. He enrolled, but the art school never took attendance, and so instead of taking classes he explored the collections of the Louvre and the Musée Guimet, paid calls to Fernand Léger’s studio, and visiting Romanesque churches in the French countryside. The young American painted increasingly abstract nudes, heavily indebted to Pablo Picasso. “I thought he showed young artists how to make a picture. I liked him from the beginning – but I felt that I had to get him off my back. I only saw him once. He was in a car, backed up in traffic, and I looked into the window and there he was with his black eyes” – and he holds the final word, as if the master’s intense gaze were still upon him.
In the summer of 1949 Kelly left Paris for an austere cabin on an island off the coast of Brittany, where his art turned sparer and more abstract. Instead of distinguishing foreground and background, now he was painting forms as solid blocks of colour against an equally flat expanse of white. A window, for instance, is simply a vertical stripe crossed with three bars. They were so radical, I say; how did people react? “I didn’t show anyone. The only one I did show, who was interested, was Agnes” – his fellow painter Agnes Martin, that is. “Agnes was very interested. I think in a way – Jack seems to think that too – that I gave Agnes the idea of the grid.”
Kelly had his breakthrough: by transferring an object or a scene from the real world into only its most basic outlines, he could evade the influence of Picasso and paint only for himself. He compounded that breakthrough in one of his greatest paintings, Seine, completed in 1951 and now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “I lived on the Île Saint-Louis. Every night, walking home, 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 with Red Relief over Dark Blue.
 Kelly with Red Relief over Dark Blue (2004). Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex Shutterstock

“So I wrote down 40 numbers and I put them in the box, one through 40.” He pulled out a single number – it must have been 21 – and painted a single rectangle halfway down the left side of the canvas. “Then I picked out two numbers, then three, four, five, six, until I got to the black in the center. Then when I got halfway I started reversing it.” The result: an ahead-of-its-time digital rendering of the river, made long before television and computer screens taught us to break images into pixels. As Bois astutely observes, Seine’s combined use of chance and of a gridded system of composition was unprecedented in painting, and parallels the randomly generated musical works of Pierre Boulez more than the art of any of Kelly’s coevals.

“When I came back, I thought I had arrived at some point. That I had done things that were important to me. And I think I knew what I had done, and that I didn’t have any French painter, or American painter in Paris, that I owed anything to.” But Kelly had missed the entire development of abstract expressionism while he was away. New York was Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning’s town in those days. Critics and curators were stumped by Kelly, whom they badly misdiagnosed as aMondrian follower. Not until the 1960s, with the rise of pop and minimalism, did Kelly’s bold colour and immaculate form win the attention it deserved.The black-and-white Seine gave way to intense, joyous colour in 1952 and 1953: rectangles of red, blue and yellow, or else a whole spectrum of bright stripes. And maybe he never would have left Paris – he’d stayed in France long after his GI funding dried up. But in November of 1953 his landlord turfed him out of his studio in favour of a higher-paying tenant. (Ellsworth Kelly: an early victim of Parisian gentrification.) He fell ill too. New York beckoned.
Sixty years on from his Paris days, he is still at it. Earlier this year, at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, he stunned again with audacious reliefs in the form of backward letter B’s, and in his studio he shows me an thrilling unexhibited work, with jostling expanses of green, purple and black. In leafy Spencertown he seems to have the perfect setup – a light-filled studio, ample exhibition space, the stillness of the country. But does he ever miss the bustle of Paris?
He pauses. Then: “It was wonderful. It was the best time of my life, I guess.” And he smiles the smile of a man whose youthful expedition changed painting for good.

Today we remember Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), with a few thoughts from Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern art:
"Ellsworth Kelly was one of our great visualists, to use the word that he liked to apply to himself. He showed us that a simple problem—the interaction of a single color and a relatively simple shape—was not so simple after all. Looking at a Kelly painting for a few minutes, really looking, is an exercise that can and should change the way we see everything else."
Learn more about Kelly and this work of art:http://bit.ly/EllsworthKellyTiger
Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), "Tiger," 1953, oil on canvas (five joined panels), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Artist