Ostensibly recognisable in its geometric simplicity, Kelly’s shaped canvas does not in fact adhere to any standard forms. Neither circle nor square, Black Panel with Curve teeters on the brink of identification as a regular shape while evading categorisation altogether, combining sharp angles and hard lines with the elegant curve of its upper edge. Conflating painting, sculpture and relief, Kelly saw his shaped canvases as a vivid and graphically stimulating reference to his viewers’ immediate and unmediated visual experience of the physical world. However, all experience, whether physical or spiritual, is certainly mediated by the context in which it is presented, and thus becomes subjective. The experience thus cannot be entirely elevated above physical and terrestrial concerns. Indeed, 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” and were thus immediately associated with humanity and its corporeal presence (E. C. Goosen in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Sixteen Americans, 1959, p. 31). This apparent worldly basis is unsurprising, given the works 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 skilfully 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, and indeed prefiguring Andy Warhol’s manipulation of photographs of shadows to create his pivotal Shadow abstracts in the late 1970s. As Simon Schama has explained, 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 cited in: Rachel Cooke, ‘Ellsworth Kelly: ‘I want to live another 15 years’, The Guardian, November 8 2015, online).
By utilising 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 colour 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 – colour 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" (Ellsworth Kelly, cited in: 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 categorisation. Throughout his career, he has been linked with a variety of twentieth-century art movements 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 colour 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, Piet Mondrian, and Jean 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 that 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 organisation 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 autumn 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” (Ibid.)
Black Panel with Curve succeeds in prompting the viewer to question the very nature of what painting is or can be. The culmination of a hugely important series of works whose influence extends from the contemporary sculpture of Richard Serra to iconic pieces by artists such as Robert Morris and Frank Stella, 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, colour-field painters, Minimalists and Pop artists, Kelly forged a visual vocabulary and oeuvre that was entirely his own. Defining space without dominating it, the present work creates its own reality, one that resounds with the extraordinary profundity of his practice.
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