A Rare Look at the Letters Between Two Art World Giants

The artists Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly maintained an intimate, lively correspondence that reveals affinities both personal and aesthetic.

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How is art shaped by friendship? The exhibition “Calder / Kelly,” which is now open at the Lévy Gorvy gallery in New York, entertains this question across three floors of work and ephemera by the artists Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly. Spanning five decades, the pieces highlight the aesthetic and personal affinities between these two heavyweights of 20th-century abstract art. American modernists who both spent formative periods in Paris (in the late 1920s and late 1940s, respectively), Calder and Kelly eventually met in that city and maintained a lasting fondness for one another, despite an age difference of 25 years.

The idea for this exhibition originated three years ago, when the gallerist Dominique Lévy encountered a Calder mobile and a monochrome Kelly painting within the same line of sight at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. “I just lost my breath for a moment,” Lévy recalls of the momentary convergence. “All my career I’ve done pas de deux dialogue exhibitions because I love them,” she explains, “They allow you to enter an artist’s world and sometimes what you feel instinctively becomes actually justified.”

Among the many artworks on display, including Calder’s “Red Maze III” (1954) and Kelly’s “Red White” (1962), are notes that the two artists sent to one another and their families. Rather than trading remarks on their creative processes or contemporaries, the letters focus on time enjoyed in each other’s company, a sense of mutual admiration and a cheerful readiness on the part of the elder artist to extend support to the younger. Below, three examples reveal the interweaving threads of their friendship.

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