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Still creating in his 87th year, artist Ellsworth Kelly is very much of the “why stop now?” mind-set — always has been, always will be.
Before picking up his Pratt Legends prize Wednesday night, the artist and sculptor, who chalks up his keen eye from boyhood days spent bird-watching, had buckets of material to spill — old and new. The son of an insurance executive father and schoolteacher mother chatted about his stint in The Ghost Army with Bill Blass, postwar Paris afternoons and today’s art scene. Kelly’s brightly colored paintings are noticeably absent from the new “Abstract Expressionist New York” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, but he will be feted at the Guggenheim’s annual gala Nov. 8.
WWD: How did you meet Blass?
Ellsworth Kelly: Bill and I were camouflagers [in the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion]. We were buddies. He called me “Worth” instead of Ellsworth. You know who Worth was, don’t you? The famous designer in Paris. Bill liked my watercolors. I packed them and carried them around with me. We were in Normandy 10 days after the onslaught. I was driving a truck at that time. Of course, that wasn’t the best time of my life, but it set me forward.
WWD: What would most people not know about Blass?
E.K.: We weren’t lovers.
WWD: How did you get your start in the art world?
E.K.: I went to Pratt in 1941 and then I was inducted into the Army. Once we had the GI bill, I went to Paris to live for six years. Paris is a good city for Modernism. That was a few years before the Abstract Expressionists came on the scene and took art to New York.
WWD: Will you go see the “Abstract Expressionist” show at the MoMA?
E.K.: Yes. I’m not sure when. I’m traveling a lot.
WWD: What do you think of the state of the art world today? Who are some of the newer artists that you have seen recently that you like?
E.K.: I’m cool about a little. As you get older, you grow up. I started in Paris in 1948 with friends like Roy Lichtenstein, and I knew a lot of artists. Roy and I used to talk about continuing through to the end of your life. He did it, and I am doing that. You kind of continue with what you’re doing.
WWD: Where do you get your ideas?
E.K.: My work doesn’t really have inspiration. The ideas just come. They’re just lying around sleeping and then they appear. Come in February and you’ll see. I am having a show at the Matthew Marks Gallery.
WWD: What fuels your creative drive after so many years?
E.K.: I’ve always been perceptive. My work is about perception. I’m always looking because I’m always working. I see fragments because I’m looking.
WWD: What has changed?
E.K.: It just gets harder as you get older. I still have the drive. It still goes on and on. And they’re better. The latest painting is always the best.