Paul Kelpe was born in Minden, Germany, and grew up in the city of Hanover, where as a student of art and architecture, he was keenly aware of the work of Kurt Schwitters, Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian Constructivists, and other early 20th-century abstract and non-objective artists. Kelpe immigrated to the United States in 1925, settling briefly in rural New Jersey before moving to Chicago, where in 1931 he had his first solo exhibition at the Little Gallery.
Kelpe’s early assemblages and constructions were made of found objects, and paralleled some of the Merz constructions of Schwitters, but at the same time Kelpe’s were more rigorously geometric, and already showed the clear sense of order and discipline for which he would later be known. One Chicago reviewer covering Kelpe’s 1932 exhibition observed that “they are as much architecture and engineering as anything else.”
In 1936, Kelpe moved to New York where he found employment with the WPA Mural Division, headed by fellow artist Burgoyne Diller. While in New York, Kelpe participated in the American Abstract Artists group, joining as a founding member and later serving as treasurer. While an active and articulate member of the AAA, Kelpe was criticized by others in the group who maintained that his use of perspective, solid geometric forms, and limitless open space could not be properly regarded as abstraction. While most of the artists within the AAA had given up the use of perspective, Kelpe chose to exploit it to new ends. Many of his stacked and floating forms appeared as three-dimensional projections or imagined constructions.
Kelpe’s unusually small, precise, and multidirectional brush strokes lend clarity and concreteness to his paintings of the 1930s and 1940s. His surfaces are built one stroke at a time; each discrete and carefully controlled gesture abuts its neighbor until, mosaic-like, the painting acquires a continuous, beautifully textured skin.