Though it appears recognizable in its geometric simplicity, Kelly’s shaped canvas in fact does not adhere to any standard forms known to us. Neither a triangle nor a square nor a circle, Kelly’s shape teeters on the brink of each regular shape while evading categorization altogether, combining sharp angles and hard lines with the ineffably elegant curve of its upper edge. Conflating the categories of painting, sculpture, and relief, Kelly achieved a powerful unified visual entity. Kelly conceived his shaped canvases as immediate, unmediated effects which would recreate a vivid and graphically stimulating reference to the viewer's own immediate and unmediated visual experience of the physical world. However, all experience, whether physical or spiritual, is certainly mediated and becomes subjective. Even when Kelly's geometric abstractions were first exhibited in 1959, they were already perceived as having "hard, crisp edges [that] commanded the eye to feel them as the hand would feel soft flesh." (E. C. Goosen in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Sixteen Americans, 1959, p. 31) Executed almost three decades later, Kelly’s Black Panel I is a remarkable example from the very apex of the artist’s innovation and development.
By utilizing such a blunt and sophisticated economy of means, the artist has addressed the nature of the painted canvas as a structured object, not a field of painterly gesture, with a singular impactful color entirely shifting our perceptions of space. 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. In a 1964 interview with Henry Geldzahler, the artist stated, "I'm interested in the mass and color, the black and white – the edges happen because the forms get as quiet as they can be." (Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, 1996, p. 11)
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 Twentieth Century including Hard Edge painting, Op-Art and most often, Minimalism. 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 entirely 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 twentieth-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. In France he was also exposed to Byzantine mosaics and Cycladic art - in looking at the art of the past he was able to perfect his own architectural organization of forms. 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."
Black Panel I extraordinarily 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 remarkable reality of color—an inextricably stunning achievement that resounds with eternal profundity.
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