In Memoriam: Lee Kelly (American, 1932–2022)

📷 Marian Wood Kolisch (American, 1920–2008) “Lee Kelly,” 1991. Gelatin silver print; 22 1/4 × 22 1/4 in. Bequest of Marian Wood Kolisch, 2009.30.155 © Lee Kelly

On Monday, artist Lee Kelly passed away at age 89. An artist who helped define Northwest sculpture through his monumental public works, his COR-TEN and hand-polished steel sculptures are focal points in gathering spaces across Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Vancouver, Eugene, and as far as Houston. Kelly’s influences were as varied as sculptors Frederic Littman, for whom he worked as a studio assistant; David Smith, whose Terminal Iron Works inspired Kelly’s Leland Iron Works in Oregon City; as well as his travels abroad to India and Japan. 

Gallery view of Memory 99, 1999. Portland Art Museum, 2010. Photo: Robert DiFranco

The Museum’s collection has twenty-six works representing Kelly’s decades-long career working in drawing, painting, and sculpture. In 2010, the Museum organized a career retrospective and published an exhibition catalogue. From the publication, former chief curator Bruce Guenther wrote: “In his search for form and meaning, the physical and the spiritual, Lee Kelly has examined the possibilities of sculpture both public and private at every scale… [His] artistic journey over 60 years from painting to sculpture—from improvisational abstraction to spare geometry—has mirrored the aesthetic course of the postwar era. As it moved from abstract expressionism to minimalism into postmodernism…the thread of his work is his ongoing attempt to give voice to…the immediacy of sculpture.”

Kelly will be remembered for his generosity of spirit that rivaled in scale the monumental works he contributed to Oregon’s artistic history. Rest in peace.

Lee Kelly (American, 1932–2022); Marian Wood Kolisch (American, 1920–2008), Lee Kelly, 1991, gelatin silver print; 22 1/4 × 22 1/4 in. Bequest of Marian Wood Kolisch, 2009.30.155 © Lee Kelly

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