At the studio, Kelly moved energetically from room to room. His one concession to age is the need for supplemental oxygen—a result of a life lived amid turpentine fumes. Clear plastic tubing trailed behind him for 40 feet, and like a relay racer handing off a baton, Kelly effortlessly traded his gear for another set as he moved into the next room, the subtle white noise of the oxygen concentrators in the background adding a meditative hush to the proceedings. “My eyes are always searching outside for clues,” he said, scanning the room and stopping at a window that looked onto a green hill in the distance. “I keep investigating how the sun hits a building and the shadow that appears with it or the look of a field of bright green, the curve of green. I’m constantly investigating nature—nature, meaning everything.” Kelly still paints everything himself, an anomaly in a world where sometimes even the assistants have assistants. His brushes, which were sitting on a nearby table, are singular in that each has been used only for a single color—the bristles permanently stained yellow, red, blue.
For the past 28 years, Kelly has shared his life with the photographer Jack Shear, the director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Theirs is a civilized country life: Kelly works a full day in the studio and returns to the house by seven. Dinner is served at eight, after which Kelly reads and watches a little television—especially Downton Abbey—or plays on the computer. (His favorite game is Spider Solitaire.) The intimate portrait of Kelly taken by Shear (on the previous page) is an insider’s nod to Shear’s 1985 book Four Marines and Other Portraits, which included images of shirtless men, among them a younger Kelly. Of the recent photos, Shear said, “I thought, What can I do that no one else can, and that’s photograph him naked. I didn’t really photograph him naked, he just had his shirt off. But I sensed his vulnerability.” Kelly, he added, “has done self-portraits his whole life. He’s investigated what he looks like and how he sees himself.”
The son of an insurance salesman, Kelly grew up in northern New Jersey, where his love of nature took hold. “When I was a kid I was often sick, and my grandmother and my mother got me going on birds, so I started doing these abstractions,” he said. “I was always outside in the woods. And I remember this bird, this redstart, a little blackbird with three or four red specks on its head, and it was the first bird that zeroed in on me. It was ahead of me, like it was leading me on, and I kept following it. I got fascinated by all the birds. I had a good eye in those days.”