Ellsworth Kelly in his New York studio in 1957.

T he present work is a letter from a 34-year-old Ellsworth Kelly to his friend Louis Clayeux, who served as the renowned artistic director of Galerie Maeght between 1948-1965. Kelly and Clayeux first met in 1950, two years after the artist first moved to Paris on the GI Bill. The six years Kelly spent in the French capital—where he encountered a new and indelibly influential circle of dealers, collectors, and artistic peers—were crucial to the development of his pioneering Hard-Edge style. In 1951, one year after Kelly and Clayeux first met, the dealer included four of Kelly’s paintings in Tendance, Galerie Maeght’s annual exhibition of young talent, leading prominent figures such as Georges Braque to praise Kelly’s innovative approach to abstraction and geometric form. Clayeux’s decision to include Kelly in this group presentation evidently touched the artist, who would mention his “delight” at the continuation of the Tendance series six years later in the text of the present letter.

Ellsworth Kelly, Atlantic, 1956. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Kelly penned this letter after returning to New York in 1954. Once back in the United States, he was soon discovered by the dealer Betty Parsons, who gave him his very first solo exhibitions in 1956 and 1957. He also debuted works at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Young America 1957 group exhibition. For the present letter, Kelly reproduced in watercolor some of his most notable works from these exhibitions for Clayeux’s perusal, as the pair were in the midst of planning Kelly’s upcoming solo exhibition at the Frenchman's gallery. Realized in 1958, this presentation of twenty-two paintings at Galerie Maeght proved to be a turning point that crystallized Kelly's reputation abroad; those who attended the show included Lawrence Alloway, then the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, who went on to advise the illustrious British collector E.J. Power to acquire eight major paintings by Kelly.

This letter is a precious token of collaboration and trust between artist and gallerist. Conveying Kelly’s unique gift for color, line, and form through a suite of intimate watercolor sketches, it gives the viewer a rare and exciting behind-the-scenes look at the mind of a young artist perched on the cusp of international renown.

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1958. Photo courtesy of Galerie Maeght and the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.