Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Over Yellow, first exhibited in a solo show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1967, is an impeccable example of the artist’s masterful ability to manipulate scale, proportion, and the interrelationship of strong colors in order to imbue a structural rhythm and spatial tension that is indicative of the artist’s singularity. By utilizing such an economy of means, Kelly directly addresses the nature of the painted canvas as aesthetic object, engaging with the spatial relationships between the object and the wall as well as between the object and the viewer. In this purely rectilinear work, Kelly utilizes bright monochromatic panels as forms unto themselves and abandons the traditional manifestation of color as representational. The figure and ground become one entity, the bright blast of yellow tempered and weighed by the depth of the red – the synchronous arrangement of the two contributing to the unification of the separate canvases into one form.
Kelly’s trajectory and evolution as an artist transcends the traditional ideas of categorization. Throughout his career, he has been linked with a variety of art movements of the 20th century including Hard Edge painting, Op-Art and most often, Minimalist art. Although his work certainly shares some of the same artistic tendencies as other examples of Minimalism, such as the reductive form and distilled color seen here, Kelly’s process has always been an introspective and contemplative one. This singular mentality has enabled him to continue to pursue and investigate many of the same aesthetic and thematic issues, which have captivated him since he first enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1946 upon returning from service in Europe during World War II. Following two years of study in Boston, Kelly decided to move to Paris where he was able to fully immerse himself in the work of many of the early innovators of 20th century Modernism such as Malevich, Mondrian, and Arp, whose work would play a pivotal role in the artist’s development. In addition to this pantheon of early Modernists, Kelly was able to more fully investigate the architectural details around him in a manner which is hard to understate. During his time in Boston, Kelly had already exhibited an interest in the Byzantine and ancient cultural traditions of early western civilization, and while living in Paris, he frequently visited the historical museums where he was able to further explore these artistic achievements. The immediacy and anonymity of this art would leave a lasting impression on the artist as he wrote to John Cage in the fall of 1950:
"I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long—to hang on walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures… We must make our art like the Egyptians, the Chinese and the African and the Island primitives… It should meet the eye—direct."
Returning to New York in 1954, after running low on GI Bill funds and not having quite found the recognition in Paris which he desired, Kelly moved to New York, settling first in Lower Manhattan around Coenties Slip. Artists such as Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg and others all maintained space in the area, and in 1955, dealer David Herbert, working at the Sidney Janis Gallery, visited Kelly and first suggested to Betty Parsons that she show his work.
In 1965, Kelly showed a collection of new works at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, which continued his exploration of the manner in which bright color, scale, and proportion can, through seemingly simple manipulation, create a new reality. By the time Red Over Yellow was shown in 1967, his canvases had achieved wide recognition for their ability to create space and form with color and composition. The present work reflects an acute awareness of how one’s perception of these various traits can so affect the mind and describe a singular, new experience.
In a sense, Kelly's multi-panel paintings such as Red Over Yellow are a literal, anti-illusionist collage that depicts space through the division of monochromatic surfaces, reduced to an eloquent pairing of two. Kelly was known to mix bits of one color with the other, in order to temper each against its partner. The red is not pure red nor the yellow pure yellow, and the perception of the bordering panels of seemingly unadulterated color is so effected that the two exist both as one entity and as separate forms. Kelly has very carefully calibrated the mass of the color forms and the weight of their chromatic values in such a way as to resolutely describe the painting as its own form, its own figure, and the wall as its ground. In the present work, the colors exist as separate entities, yet are made more powerful and enthralling when paired together. The red and yellow hues are arrestingly bright and vivid, even close to 60 years after the work's execution.
With his self-imposed minimal artistic vocabulary, Kelly has succeeded in experimenting with perception without diluting what he considered to be the fundamental factors of artistic representation – color and form. Even with only two colors and two geometrically pure rectangles, Red Over Yellow succeeds in drawing the viewer in to question the very nature of what painting is or can be. Kelly has once again defined space without dominating it and has beautifully created his own reality of color.
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