by Ilene Spiewak
Why would Ellsworth Kelly (1923 – 2015) chose to live in the middle of nowhere in Spencertown, NY? It’s a quiet hamlet in the Hudson Valley not far from the Massachusetts border where I live. We’ve driven through Spencertown (not hip) countless times on our way to Hudson (hip) or to New York City (very hip). I wondered if we would ever see him in town.
Kelly was born in Newburgh NY and raised in Oradell NJ, where he attended public school. As a lonely, shy youngster in NJ, he developed a fascination with the color of birds and watching them. Kelly’s parents did not support his love of the arts, but one of his teachers encouraged him to pursue his passion.
Ellsworth Kelly enlisted in the service and belonged to a special military camouflage unit. Many other artists were recruited to this group. After World War II, Kelly used the G.I. Bill to study art in Boston and Paris, where he lived for 6 years. While in Paris, he met John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and Alexander Calder. They became friends and mentors.
Kelly returned to America in 1954 and lived in Manhattan where he sometimes shared studio space with the painter Agnes Martin. But he did not fit into the art scene and found the artworld in New York “very tough”. His paintings were considered radically different from other artists’ at the Whitney Museum exhibit “Young America 1957”. Kelly’s interest in birds and camouflage informed the construction and deconstruction of the visible throughout his lifetime but his work he was told, was “too French”.
In 1970 Kelly left the city for rural Spencertown. His first studio was a spacious old theater not far from home in pastoral Chatham, NY, where he produced a series of fourteen paintings called The Chatham Series.
In 1984 Kelly’s husband, photographer Jack Sheer, joined him in Spencertown where they lived a quiet and civilized country life. In 2004, they moved into a wood-clad colonial style home built in 1915. Their home and studios have views of the bucolic landscape. They are refined, understated spaces that are pared down to the essentials where Kelly could pursue his investigation of nature. Kelly was annoyed that he had to travel the three hours – it’s really a bit less than that – to Manhattan to meet collectors and curators. But now, there’s constant traffic to Spencertown from around the world.
Two years ago on Ellsworth Kelly’s 90th birthday, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation got a $300,000 permanent endowment for the arts and humanities for six public school districts in Columbia County, NY. Yes! This is in addition to $1.45 million the Kelly Foundation had given over the past 10 years to public school students in this region defined by farmland.
Kelly wrote that he wanted to “ free shapes from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it” (1984).
There is an understated joy in rural living. An ungrudging quality of life and work that shapes one’s relationship to the space around them. Maybe that’s why Ellsworth Kelly chose to live in Spencertown. Maybe that’s why I live in West Stockbridge.
Thank you for being so modestly hip, Ellsworth Kelly.