Lot 42
  • 42

Ellsworth Kelly

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
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  • Ellsworth Kelly
  • Purple Panel with Blue Curve
  • signed, dated 1989 and numbered #796A on the overlap; numbered #796 twice on the stretcher; signed twice, titled, dated 1989 and numbered #796A and #796B on the backing boards
  • oil on canvas, on two joined panels
  • 76 by 114 in. 193 by 289.6 cm.


Blum Helman Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in December 1989


New York, Blum Helman Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly: Curves/Rectangles, November - December 1989, n.p., illustrated in color
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; London, Tate Gallery; and Munich, Haus der Kunst, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, October 1996 - January 1998, p. 37 (text), p. 50 (text) and  p. 227, no. 92, illustrated in color
Baltimore, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Front Room: Ellsworth Kelly, November 2007 - February 2008, n.p., illustrated in color


Suzanne Muchnic, "Ever the Rainbow," Los Angeles Times, February 9, 1997, p. 3, illustrated in color
Tim Adams, "Ellsworth Kelly - Curve oeuvre," The Observer Life, June 1, 1997, p. 19, illustrated in color 
Martin Gayford, "Interview: Where the Eye Leads," Modern Painters, Summer 1997, p. 64, illustrated in color 
Niels Jacob Harbitz, "Den abstraherte estetikk,'" Morgenbladet 30, August 1, 1997, p. 13, illustrated
Simon Morley, "Shaping Up to Ellsworth Kelly," Tate - The Centenary Issue no. 12, Summer 1997, p. 22, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., New York, Joseph Helman Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly Masterworks: Two-panel Paintings, 1998, n.p., illustrated in color (in installation at Blum Helman Gallery, 1989)
Bret McCabe, "In Living Color: Trying to Find a Way into Ellsworth Kelly's Paintings," Baltimore City Paper, February 6, 2008 

Catalogue Note

Arresting in both its dramatic scale and vivid visual impact, Ellsworth Kelly’s Purple Panel with Blue Curve is among the most cogent reflections of the artist’s brilliant accomplishments as a colorist. The present work exemplifies Kelly’s unwavering commitment to and rigorous examination of the most fundamental elements of painting: color, shape and form. Indeed, Purple Panel with Blue Curve’s debut at Blum Helman in 1989 received outstanding critical acclaim; John Russell in The New York Times wrote, “Year after year, Mr. Kelly turns up at Blum Helman with paintings that are monumental in scale, completely resolved and subtly different from anything that he has done before...His new show consists of eight paintings. Four are in black and white only. In the other four, Mr. Kelly comes up with combinations that seem to reinvent the very notion of color. His red, his orange, his blue, his green and his purple may not, in themselves, be so different from other people’s. But when he puts two of them together, abutting, barely touching, standing off or slipping with no fuss into an altogether new relationships we see them quite differently.” (John Russell, “Review/Art: Ellsworth Kelly - Blum Helman Gallery,” The New York Times, November 24, 1989) The present work’s grand scale, chromatic brilliance and profound rearticulation of the picture plane distinguish Purple Panel with Blue Curve within his output, its singularity further cemented by its inclusion in Kelly’s widely celebrated international retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1989, which, in addition to its display in New York, also traveled to Los Angeles, London and Munich. Having remained in the same collection since its first appearance at Blum Helman, Purple Panel with Blue Curve provides an endlessly satisfying viewing experience.

The present work illustrates an enigmatic fusion of shaped canvases that surge across the wall in vibrant exaltation. Although comprising two distinct panels - one a traditional rectangle and the other a triangular form with a unique and ineffably elegant curve - Kelly achieves a sublime equilibrium in the overall composition of geometric lines and exactingly applied paint. Conflating the categories of painting, sculpture and relief, Kelly achieved a powerful unified visual vocabulary, in which color occupies space. The unmodulated hues are relentlessly flat, yet they simultaneously seem to recede and advance. Converging in a vertical line, anchored by the acute angle of the cerulean curve, the violet panel extends voluminously to the right and expands the composition outward. Seductive and alluring, the aubergine square and sensuous shaped canvas of the blue curve draw the viewer into an overwhelming sensory experience. The scale of this work demands interaction: the two canvases are overwhelming in their rich swaths of saturated color, yet they are also relatively proportionate in height to an average viewer. In executing Purple Panel with Blue Curve, Kelly has deftly achieved a precise configuration that balances color, positive and negative space and the dialogue between object and wall. Indeed, in the exhibition catalogue for Kelly's Guggenheim exhibition, Roberta Bernstein illuminates the significance of these double panels: “By grouping the variously shaped panels in a single work, Kelly could exploit the juxtapositionings of curves and angles by playing off straight edges with concave and convex curved ones, as he had done earlier in his figure/ground paintings and sculptures, and create dynamically activated wall intervals.” (Roberta Bernstein, “Ellsworth Kelly’s Multipanel Paintings” in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Diane Waldman, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, 1996 - 1997, p. 49) These “activated wall intervals” were the product of Kelly liberating painting from the confines of its frame. No longer restrained by four strict delineated edges, Kelly’s shaped canvases swell across the ground on which they are placed, bringing the wall into the overall composition. A pioneer of the Hard-Edge movement, Kelly is best known for these saturated, monochromatic panels of color that coalesce Abstraction, Minimalism, and a post-war sensibility in a wholly unique style that has come to define his body of work. Although undeniably a Twentieth Century artist who shaped the post-war canon, Kelly sought to understand the very principles of painterly and artistic tradition that challenged artists from Raphael to Paul Signac, testing the limits of color and shape. Like the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists nearly a century before him, Kelly continued to explore the essence of pigment, not in the service of trompe l'oeil but rather as an end product in and of itself. Kelly privileges color alone to such a degree that his output becomes an exercise in renegotiating the relationship between painting and sculpture, wherein color takes on the identity of a sculpture in its own right. Kelly divorces his art from the framed rectangle as a circumscribed ‘window into the world’ of traditional art history, and instead expands the flatbed picture plane outward by bringing the wall on which they hang into the composition. The uninterrupted surface and hue of both the purple and blue panels are a testament to the control, precision, and exacting nature of Kelly’s signature style. Kelly’s economy of line refuses the mark-making and 'artist as hero' ideology of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and instead celebrates a cool detachment, anonymity, and industrial aesthetic more aligned with Minimalist and Pop Artists of the 1950s and 1960s.

In what would become a legendary story about the artist and a source of inspiration for the present work, Kelly recalls an early experience in his artistic practice. As a young child being directed to draw ‘springtime,’ Kelly cut out shapes of assuredly colored crayon on paper to make up a collage, an exercise that preoccupied artists such as Henri Matisse. Purple Panel with Blue Curve is indeed reminiscent of Matisse’s cut-outs, in which the artist pasted cut-outs of colored paper onto a flat background so that the ground itself came into the composition. Gottfried Boehm writes, “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: Painting, Relief, and Sculpture in the Work of Ellsworth Kelly, Exh. Cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Ellsworth Kelly: Works 1956-2002, 2002-2003, p. 33) Kelly explored the limits and boundaries of painting using distilled color and shaped canvases, through which he eschewed literal representation and rather aimed to capture a fleeting moment from everyday life. Although not directly representational, Kelly’s paintings are anchored in precise sources of naturally occurring abstraction: the light streaming through a mullioned window, the silhouette of a bird’s wing against the sky, the shape of a leaf folded over onto itself. These points of reference—so skillfully and austerely stripped down to their most fundamental components—ground Kelly’s art in a physical space, while simultaneously revealing a post-war preoccupation with alternate methods of representation and the viewer’s perception of the final product. Kelly’s works are born from “perceptual serendipity—in a shadow, a reflection, a partly obscured object or shape—from which he then shears away a visual fragment.” (Simon Schama, quoted in “Ellsworth Kelly: ‘I want to live another 15 years.’” Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, November 8, 2015)

Kelly’s legacy is one of liberation: liberating painting from the limitations of a frame; liberating the picture plane; liberating the viewer by engaging him in a more participatory experience. Surrounded by action painters, color-field painters, Minimalists, and Pop Artists, Kelly forged a visual vocabulary and oeuvre entirely his own. The eight double panel works that comprised the 1989 Blum Helman show, including the present work, were the crescendo of Kelly’s ceaseless fascination with color. In his review of the exhibition, John Russell asserts “...this is big art, and true art. Don’t miss it.” (John Russell, “Review/Art: Ellsworth Kelly - Blum Helman Gallery,” The New York Times, November 24, 1989)