James Kelly Biography

James Kelly




James Kelly, painter, printmaker, and teacher, was born on 19 December 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While working in his family’s shoe manufacturing business, Kelly took a night class at the School of Industrial Art in 1937 and, in 1938, he attended night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts. In 1941, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Barnes Foundation in Marion, Pennsylvania. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kelly enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps on 13 December 1941.

After his discharge in 1945, Kelly returned to Philadelphia where he rented a studio and painted. In 1950, he relocated to San Francisco and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts [CSFA] under the G.I. Bill. Kelly was considered a mature artist and was given his own studio. He attended CSFA between 1951 and 1954 when the school was a hotbed of Abstract Expressionism. Kelly made friends with artists Richard Brodney, Roy De Forest, and Knut Stiles. While at the CSFA, he made his first prints in 1952, experimenting in lithography and intaglio.

On 23 June 1953, Kelly married fellow artist Sonia A. Gechtoff and the couple lived on Filmore Street in San Francisco. The inhabitants of the house next door were artists Jay De Feo, Wally Hedrick and Michael McClure. Kelly worked part-time in a photo finishing laboratory and tended bar at The Place, a Grant Avenue hangout for artists and poets. His first solo show was at The Place in 1954. Later Kelly landed a full-time job as preparator at the San Francisco Museum of Art working with artist Julius Wasserstein.

Kelly taught at the University of California, Berkeley during the summer of 1957 and, in 1958, he won first prize for painting at the 77th Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. That same year, he and Gechtoff moved to New York where he worked for five years as a freelance designer for Grove Press.  

Beside exhibiting at The Place in San Francisco, Kelly’s work was shown at the King Abu Gallery in San Francisco, Action 1 in the Merry-Go-Round Building on the Santa Monica Pier, the San Francisco Art Association Gallery, the California School of Fine Arts, the Stryke Gallery in New York, the East Hampton Gallery in New York, and the Westbeth Gallery in New York. He was also included in the exhibition A Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945-1950 [based upon Mary Fuller’s seminal book of the same title] at the Oakland Museum, California in 1973; and the exhibition The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism which was on view at the Laguna Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1996.

Kelly was awarded the Ford Foundation grant in 1963, the National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1977, and the Peter and Madeline Martin Foundation for the Creative Arts grant in 1990.

James Kelly’s work is represented in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; the San José Museum of Art, California; the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Library of Congress, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.

James Kelly died 29 June 2003 in New York City.