The U.S. Post Office’s Newest Stamps? Works by Late Gay Artist Ellsworth Kelly

"Kelly pioneered a distinctive style of abstraction based on real elements reduced to their essential forms."

Ellsworth Kelly was one of the most influential abstract painters of the 20th century. He was also an openly gay man, at a time when even the art world wasn’t entirely receptive to queerness. Now, four years after his 2015 death at age 92, Kelly is being honored with an eye-catching series of postage stamps, to be released by the U.S. Postal Service later this year.

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Ellsworth Kelly in 1967.

Kelly was part of a coterie of queer artists who all lived near each other in lower Manhattan in the late 1950s, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Agnes Martin. Kelly’s rocky romantic relationship with artist Robert Indiana actually inspired Indiana’s most famous work: In 1964, Indiana sent Kelly a postcard with the F-word laid out in a now-familiar pattern. Of course when Indiana reworked the image for a holiday card that winter, he used the iconic L-O-V-E lettering. (The very shades of blue and green Indiana chose are Kelly’s most identifiable colors.)

Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty
Robert Indiana silkscreen print.

As a boy, Kelly was a shy loner. But during WWII, as part of the infamous Ghost Army, he helped construct fake tanks and battalions to baffle the Axis. Following the war, he spent six years in Paris, courtesy of the G.I. Bill, soaking up the Expressionists, the Dadists, and other revolutionary movements. He returned to New York in 1954, and focused his paintings on large, simple, almost manicured colorfields.

His work presaged Pop art and minimalism and, though he didn’t address LGBTQ issues directly, Kelly invoked the colors of the rainbow decades before Gilbert Baker designed the Pride flag.

Spectrum ! by Ellsworth Kelly.

“Kelly pioneered a distinctive style of abstraction based on real elements reduced to their essential forms,” the USPS said in a statement.

When released, each stamp sheet will feature 10 pieces by Kelly, each paining represented twice: Yellow White (1961), Colors for a Large Wall (1951), Blue Red Rocker (1963), Spectrum I (1953), South Ferry (1956), Blue Green (1962), Orange Red Relief (for Delphine Seyrig) (1990), Meschers (1951), Red Blue (1964), and Gaza (1956). A detail from 1971’s Blue Yellow Red III appears in the sheet trim.

U.S. Post Office

Kelly is also receiving much deserved recognition abroad, at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, where “Ellsworth Kelly: Windows” opens February 27. The exhibition features the six Windows paintings Kelly created in France between 1949 and 1950—including his most famous, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris—as well as related drawings and sketches and photographs from the period.

The Ellsworth Kelly stamp will be available May 31.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.