Kelly’s trajectory and evolution as an artist transcends the traditional ideas of categorization yet his artistic training was a traditional one. He enrolled in the United States Army in 1943 and was stationed throughout Europe for the remainder of World War II. Under the G.I. Bill, Kelly chose to enroll at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts school in 1946 and, just two years later, relocated to Paris where gestural abstraction was flourishing. In Paris, Kelly found major inspiration from his predecessors Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Hans Arp, whose complete rejection of figurative and relational subject matter interested Kelly far more than the expressive art of his peers. Throughout extensive travel in France and Europe, Kelly also discovered a symbiotic relationship between his love for the economy of line and Cycladic art, allowing Kelly to perfect his own architectural organization of forms. Kelly’s flattened, geometric canvases were not met with much fanfare in Europe and, somewhat dejected, he returned to New York in 1954 where he quickly settled in with, and thrived among, the Coenties slip artists. Here, Kelly forged important friendships with artists such as Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin and Jack Youngerman, all of whom were bound by a deep commitment to exploring form and the relationship between space, curves and edges in abstract shapes. Each one of these artists took their inspiration from the raw, industrial materials, commercial signage and positioning between land and sea at the Slip. Overwhelmed by his new surroundings, Kelly constantly took photographs that captured patterns in architectural details, stairs, walls, and windows in fragmentary glimpses. In early collages and reliefs, Kelly further highlighted his concerns with angles, curves and shadows—in other words, with the edges of things. Indeed, this hard-edged, abstract beauty is prominent in White Black (Petit Dolmen), in which the central white form asserts itself against the angular reliefs of the black elements.
Early in 1958, legendary dealers Aime and Marguerite Maeght, along with critic Louis Clayeux, visited Kelly in his Coenties Slip studio. The Maeghts proposed that Kelly present a solo show of his painting that autumn to which Kelly agreed without question. This would be Kelly’s first solo show at the prominent Parisian gallery—he had been included in in several group shows at Galerie Maeght during his tenure in Paris, but had never been extended the honor of his own presentation. Invigorated with an entirely new spirit, Kelly executed 22 paintings to be debuted in Paris, including the present White Black (Petit Dolmen), and even designed the cover of Aime Maeght’s Derrière le Miroir and produced a limited edition poster for the occasion. Following years spent struggling to build his reputation as an American artist living in Paris, the Maeghts’ transatlantic visit to the Slip was transformative for Kelly in establishing himself among the great American artists of his time.
Unsurprisingly, Galerie Maeght’s 1958 Ellsworth Kelly exhibition was an immense success; not only was the show completely sold out, but one collector in particular, E.J. ‘Ted’ Power of London, bought eight works alone after being advised by Lawrence Alloway, the then-curator of the ICA in London. In addition to acquiring the present White Black (Petit Dolmen), Power also purchased the monumental Broadway, which he gifted to London’s Tate Gallery in 1962. In the years following World War II, there were few collectors of contemporary art in Britain, but within the small group that did, Power undoubtedly led the way. He collected voraciously and assiduously for more than 35 years, but during the 1950s and 1960s, the breadth and depth of his collection was extraordinary. Alongside the eight Kellys purchased from the Maeght show, in 1958, Power added three Clyfford Stills, two Jackson Pollocks, two Mark Rothkos, twenty Jean Dubuffets and more to his ever-expanding collection. Power would go on to acquire five more works by Kelly in the next few years and, in speaking about his love for Kelly’s work, he remarked “To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of a painting which I like is that it is an unique expression or statement of an artist’s ideas and emotions communicated through color, shape and texture, by him to me, in a form which I can hold, and keep, and own, and live with, and use, and enjoy, and perhaps with time to get to know and understand. This knowing of a picture should always be a challenge” (E.J. Power, 10 International Artists, Norfolk Contemporary Art Society, Norwich Castle Museum 1959).
Painted during a critical period at the outset of his investigations of modernist painterly theories, White Black (Petit Dolmen) 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 Black (Petit Dolmen) and softly contoured edges vibrate and pulse with an energy that returns the viewer’s attention to the flatness of the canvas and its identity as an object.
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