Lot 30
  • 30

Ellsworth Kelly

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Ellsworth Kelly
  • Black Panel I
  • signed with initials, dated 1985 and numbered #697 on the overlap; signed with initials, dated 1985 and numbered #697 twice on the stretcher; numbered #697 on the backing board
  • oil on canvas
  • 84 x 95 in. 213.4 x 241.3 cm.


Blum Helman Gallery Inc., New York
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2000


New York, Blum Helman Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly, New Paintings, March 1985
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Ellsworth Kelly: Courtyard Installation, September 1989 - August 1999


This work is in excellent condition. The paint surface appears stable and secure. Under ultraviolet light there are no apparent restorations. On close inspection and under strong light, there are faint signs of handling along the edges at 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock and 10 o'clock. The canvas is framed in a metal strip frame. As is the artist's typical practice, there are backing boards on the reverse to protect the canvas, in this case, secured in place underneath two horizontal wood supports.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Extending voluminously across the wall while asserting the relentless flatness of the picture plane, the surface of Ellsworth Kelly’s Black Panel I from 1985 is utterly entrancing and phenomenally all-consuming, pulling us into its luxuriant onyx depths and never letting go. Its unconventional shape and angular balance subverts our impression of regularity, conforming to the tenets of Minimalism while unnervingly verging on the uncanny. Kelly's flat monochromatic shapes articulate a single field of color which in turn becomes form, abandoning the traditional use of color as representational. No longer depicting objects, Kelly's color now united figure and ground into one entity - a single shape wedded to a monochromatic field. As Gottfried Boehm noted, "The decisive point in Kelly's development was reached when he abandoned the traditional dynamic of painting's organization, when form emancipated itself from its customary support, the ground, so that it could from then on lead an independent existence in the visual world." (Gottfried Boehm, "In-Between Spaces" in Exh. Cat., Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Ellsworth Kelly, 2002, p. 33)

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.