Skip Navigation

Untitled (right panel of a pair), from the Williamsburg Housing Project Murals

Paul Kelpe

American Art

On View: Great Hall, Center, 1st floor
Paul Kelpe’s Williamsburg murals, like those of Bolotowsky, Greene, and Swinden, were conceived as entirely nonobjective compositions. However, they reveal a distinctly different approach to abstraction. Kelpe is unique among these artists for his strikingly unusual color combinations, his decorative patterning of selected fields of color, and his sculpturesque forms suggesting axial rotation.

Kelpe was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists and participated actively in the organization as an exhibitor and an officeholder. Despite the stance of unity among the organization’s members in their desire to promote the acceptance of abstraction, Kelpe’s work provoked considerable criticism from within the group. His critics, most of whom favored the gridded geometries inspired by Mondrian, deplored his persistence in maintaining an illusionistic, three-dimensional space in which his abstract geometric solids float. Kelpe was thoroughly familiar with the European avant-garde. Born in Minden, Germany, he studied art history and architecture in Hanover, where he gained firsthand knowledge of the work of Kurt Schwitters, Wassily Kandinsky, and the Russian Constructivists, among others. After immigrating to the United States in 1925, he settled in Chicago in 1931. When he applied to the Chicago Regional Mural Division of the Federal Art Project, his application was denied because his bold abstract imagery did not correspond with the realistically rendered portrayals of American life that the Chicago office preferred. This rejection spurred him to move to New York City, where his abstractions found a more favorable response from Burgoyne Diller, who hired him to participate in the New York City Works Progress Administration Mural Program at Williamsburg.

Although Kelpe continued to paint and exhibit frequently, he also pursued more academic aspects of art and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in art history from the University of Chicago in 1948 and 1957, respectively. After teaching art history at the university level for many years, he retired in 1969 to devote himself to painting.
MEDIUM Oil on canvas
DATES ca. 1938
DIMENSIONS 98 3/4 x 96 in. (250.8 x 243.8 cm)  (show scale)
SIGNATURE Unsigned and undated.
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is on view in Great Hall, Center, 1st floor
CREDIT LINE On loan from the New York City Housing Authority
RIGHTS STATEMENT No known copyright restrictions
This work may be in the public domain in the United States. Works created by United States and non-United States nationals published prior to 1923 are in the public domain, subject to the terms of any applicable treaty or agreement. You may download and use Brooklyn Museum images of this work. Please include caption information from this page and credit the Brooklyn Museum. If you need a high resolution file, please contact (charges apply). The Museum does not warrant that the use of this work will not infringe on the rights of third parties, such as artists or artists' heirs holding the rights to the work. It is your responsibility to determine and satisfy copyright or other use restrictions before copying, transmitting, or making other use of protected items beyond that allowed by "fair use," as such term is understood under the United States Copyright Act. The Brooklyn Museum makes no representations or warranties with respect to the application or terms of any international agreement governing copyright protection in the United States for works created by foreign nationals. For further information about copyright, we recommend resources at the United States Library of Congress, Cornell University, Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums, and Copyright Watch. For more information about the Museum's rights project, including how rights types are assigned, please see our blog posts on copyright. If you have any information regarding this work and rights to it, please contact
CAPTION Paul Kelpe (American, born Germany, 1902-1985). Untitled (right panel of a pair), from the Williamsburg Housing Project Murals, ca. 1938. Oil on canvas, 98 3/4 x 96 in. (250.8 x 243.8 cm). On loan from the New York City Housing Authority, L1990.1.3 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, L1990.1.3_SL1.jpg)
IMAGE overall, L1990.1.3_SL1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
"CUR" at the beginning of an image file name means that the image was created by a curatorial staff member. These study images may be digital point-and-shoot photographs, when we don\'t yet have high-quality studio photography, or they may be scans of older negatives, slides, or photographic prints, providing historical documentation of the object.
Not every record you will find here is complete. More information is available for some works than for others, and some entries have been updated more recently. Records are frequently reviewed and revised, and we welcome any additional information you might have.