White Yellow of 1957 is a stunning painting of quiet power and eloquence which encapsulates Ellsworth Kelly’s unique gifts for color, form, and abstraction. Painted during a critical period at the outset of his investigations of modernist painterly theories, White Yellow is nevertheless a gem of technical erudition and aesthetic sophistication that is a beacon toward the monumental monochromes and multi-panels that would populate Kelly’s corpus from the 1960s to the present. Balanced within the traditional rectilinear canvas shape, the organic forms of White Yellow render foreground and background nearly indistinguishable, yet there is the faint illusion of three dimensions in the geometry of the forms and the vibrancy of the color; it is difficult for the viewer to optically read yellow and white simultaneously so the brain divides them, sensing juxtaposition and contrast. The artist consistently calls upon such elements of tension to achieve pictorial vitality and White Yellow is a stunning realization of this concept.
Throughout Kelly’s career, the principal importance has been in shapes and the space that surrounds them while color functions as an asset in his painterly arsenal which he employs to achieve his structural aims. The softly contoured edges of the shapes in White Yellow vie with the angled placement of the two white forms to create a sense of slippage and weightlessness that pushes the composition out from the paint surface. Yet Kelly’s restrained paint application grounds the work and returns the viewer’s attention to the flatness of the canvas and its identity as an object. The lines between the yellow and white forms vibrate and pulse with an oscillation that is prescient in terms of Kelly’s joined shaped canvases to come in later years.
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