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Born in 1923, Kelly currently lives and works in New York State.

Art scholar William Rubin noted that “Kelly’s development had been resolutely inner-directed: neither a reaction to Abstract Expressionism nor the outcome of a dialogue with his contemporaries.” Many of his paintings consist of a single (usually bright) color, with some canvases being of irregular shape, sometimes called "shaped canvases." The quality of line seen in his paintings and in the form of his shaped canvases is very subtle, and implies perfection.

Kelly’s background in the military has been suggested as a source of the seriousness of his works. While serving time in the army, Kelly was exposed to and influenced by the camouflage with which his specific battalion worked. This close contact helped enlighten him on the use of form and shadow as well as the construction and deconstruction of the visible, a basic part of Kelly’s early education as an artist. Ralph Coburn, a friend of Kelly’s from Boston, introduced him to the technique of automatic drawing while he was visiting Kelly in Paris. Kelly embraced this technique of arriving at an image without looking at the sheet of paper upon which the image is drawn. This helped Kelly to loosen his particular drawing style and broaden his acceptance of what he believed to be art. Kelly’s poor health and concurrent depression may have been related to his use of black and white during his last year in Paris. His ability to view things in multifarious ways and work in different mediums can be attributed to the influence of Kelly’s admiration for Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. His introduction to Surrealism and Neo-Plasticism lead him to test the abstraction of geometric forms.