Winding down a long driveway, we arrived at an old, Victorian house alongside a towering, modern charcoal grey structure — Ellsworth Kelly’s studio. Kelly’s partner, Jack Shear, greeted us at the door. Sensing we were artists, he welcomed us graciously.
We walked through a dimly-lit room with African artifacts adorning the walls before stepping into a sprawling, white-walled room. The glow cascading in from the skylights gave the space a palpable filter of nostalgia. On the left side of the room, Kelly’s Curves on White paintings graced the wall, perfectly hung and spaced. I pinched myself, taking in the stillness of the room, and snapped back to a memory of reading the artist’s obituary in the New York Times, in late 2015.
Before I arrived in upstate New York for my month-long residency at The Macedonia Institute, a friend reminded me that Ellsworth Kelly once had a studio in Chatham, a small town near The Macedonia Institute before moving to the next town over - Spencertown. Kelly spent the last part of his life there, making work in relative isolation with his partner, Jack Shear. Realizing that I would only be a few miles from that hallowed studio, I found myself fantasizing about seeing it in person.
I took ocassional evening breaks from the residency at the local pub in Chatham. There, I started hearing stories about Kelly from the community. I heard how open he was to sharing his art. The prints he gave out to his neighbors when he was alive were now paying for college tuitions and mortgages. He left a lasting impact on his community, and his partner Jack Shear had continued that legacy.
One lucky night, I met two of Shear’s assistants while playing pool at the pub in town. After talking about my residency, I shared my story with them. I mentioned the fact I had been asking complete strangers if they knew of Kelly’s studio. To my surprise, they were happy to connect me with Jack, who quickly arranged for a private studio visit for myself and Carly, my fellow artist-in-residence. It felt a bit like Christmas morning.
Once in the studio, and attempting to rebound from the shock of being in the place of conception for so many artworks I’ve seen on museum walls, I noticed a corner that was left untouched ever since Kelly passed. A small, blank canvas hung from a one-by-two with paint splatters cascading across the wall behind it. I could have stood there for hours, observing the subtle ridges in the tiny canyons of refuse oil paint.
The studio seemed as though Kelly had simply stepped out briefly, taking a break from his work to take a call, or read the paper. It’s a surreal moment to see the everyday footprints of an exceptional artist in person. To see his paint splattered shoes on the floor, to see his eyeglasses, calculator, and canvas stretching pliers coated in decades of paint, all atop his desk alongside colored brushes and solvents.
Shear casually flipped through Kelly’s old composition book, which was less of a sketchbook and more of a strategic account of his practice containing messy notes, gridded timelines, dimensions, and coffee stains. I marveled at the handwritten notes while Shear offered to show us around the rest of the building, carefully noting that some parts could not be photographed.
I was particularly taken by the archive of Kelly’s work, housed in massive, metal panels that Jack pulled out from the wall on a track, each panel revealing a particular snapshot of Kelly’s work. There were hundreds of Kelly’s drawings and paintings catalogue - including Kelly’s Plant Drawings and even earlier works from his childhood and high school. Jack drew each wall out, one at a time like a massive filing cabinet, containing the precious gems that I had poured over in my college textbooks. The whole collection was methodically organized largely thanks to Jack, with every title, date, and background recorded for posterity’s sake. His love for Kelly as a partner, and his appreciation for his partner’s work was clearly visible.
The last room Shear shared with us was another gallery where Shear revealed his other passion - collecting mostly figurative paintings. There, I felt like a kid in a candy shop - I saw Picasso, Philip Guston, Tom of Finland, Lee Bontecou, Egon Schiele and more. Shear let us stay as long as we wanted, before saying goodbye to us.
On the way out, I surreptitiously asked Jack if he was an artist, though I knew his photography well. He smirked at me and said, “Oh no, there’s only room for one artist in a relationship.”
A month later, on my annual solo birthday outing to SFMOMA, I walked into the Ellsworth Kelly room and had the strange feeling like I was visiting a familiar friend. I sat down on the spare wooden bench, the room empty except the work, and read back the closing quote from Kelly’s obituary:
“I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures - I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me.”
Special thanks to Jack Shear for spending an hour and half of your time with us. It was a visit I won’t soon forget.
Thank you Casson and Oliver for connecting us. Drinks are on me next time.