Nowadays, of course, Kelly’s work is regarded as profoundly American—Yankee in its guileless insistence. Yet the language it speaks is international—as if Kelly long ago anticipated a time in which communication would cease to be written and instead become entirely visual. It amuses him that the recent resurgence of interest in abstraction—whether in Damien Hirst’s dots or in the 2011 de Kooning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art—has brought with it a renewed enthusiasm for his work. “I think people have recently warmed up to it,” he said, half-joking.
Not that he’s anywhere close to done. Kelly continues to experiment and is “still excited about things I haven’t done,” as he said cheerfully when I called him one day this past April to see what he had been up to. (He recently designed his first ever tattoo, for New York’s Whitney Museum drawings curator Carter Foster.) “Who needs heaven? I only feel my best when I’m working.” He had stretchers coming in a few weeks, he said, and was in the middle of about a half-dozen paintings in the studio. And did I know that a show of his new work was about to open at Marian Goodman’s gallery in Paris? “They’re color paintings,” he explained, “a continuation of what I’ve been doing, but these are more voluptuous than my radial curves, which are very architectural. These new curves are free curves—more like our body curves, not fragments of a circle. I’m not fond of circles; they’re too complete. I love the curves of the body.”
Years ago, it annoyed Kelly that in order to meet collectors and curators he had to drive the three hours to New York City. But now, there’s constant traffic up to Spencertown, as they flock to him from around the world. Still, Kelly laments the fact that younger artists no longer seek out the masters of the previous generation the way he and others so ardently did. I suspect they are intimidated and have no idea that Kelly actually longs for that interaction with the art world’s less well-placed habitués.
“I always say I’m painting for the dead artists I like,” Kelly told me during my visit. “The ones I think would understand what I’m doing. You put your paintings up against Matisse and Picasso and wonder, Am I producing art that is nourished by the past? I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t looked at a lot of art. This is the mystery of it all: You have to look at art for a long time before you begin to understand.”