Drafted into the Army in 1943 at age 19, Kelly asked specifically to be placed in a camouflage unit. “It was a secret ghost army,” he added as he leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially. “We painted rubber tanks, and we’d inflate them in fields in Normandy, and we counted on the spy planes to see them.” (Later, wondering how covert this army was, I Googled it and learned that the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops—whose mission was to impersonate other U.S. Army units and deceive the enemy—were, in fact, a classified government secret until 1996.) After the war, Kelly returned to the U.S. to attend Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts under the GI bill, but he soon went back to France—just as the focus of the international art world was shifting to New York.
In Paris, Kelly fell under the influence of the School of Paris artists: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, and Constantin Brancusi. “I went to museums a lot, which led to my vision of France and Paris itself,” Kelly recalled. “I said, I don’t want to paint things like Picasso’s women and Matisse’s odalisques lying on couches with pillows. I don’t want to paint people. I want to paint something I have never seen before. I don’t want to make what I’m looking at. I want the fragments.” While in France, Kelly made a point of meeting as many artists as he could. The experience of visiting them in their studios—Brancusi, Alberto Magnelli, Francis Picabia, Alberto Giacometti, Georges Vantongerloo, among them—was transformative. From that moment on, Kelly proceeded to break life down into fragments—form and color became content. The result was the development of a hybrid European-American sensibility, combining a kind of high-modernist European style with an American sense of scale and form, which left Kelly belonging to no particular group or movement.
Though he became a key link between prewar-European and postwar-American art, Kelly returned to New York in 1954 only to be told by American painters and critics that his work was too French. And while his sensibility and painter’s vocabulary were already in place, his art wasn’t easily understood—Abstract Expression ruled the day. Kelly evaded classification and broad acceptance, so he remained singular, steadfastly refusing to be labeled a Minimalist while working parallel to his peers Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. “In the fifties and sixties, when I was up against Abstract Expressionism, I said, ‘I have to continue doing what I want to do,’ ” he told me. “I’m not an Expressionist. I love to look at de Kooning, but I’ve got this kind of secret life, and that is something that pleases me. I have to try and make something out of it.”