Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)
Property from a Distinguished West Coast Collection
Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

Diagonal with Curve VII

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)
Diagonal with Curve VII
signed, numbered and dated 'KELLY 1978 #568' (on the overlap); signed again, numbered again and dated again '#568 KELLY 1978' (on the stretcher)
oil on shaped canvas
107 1/2 x 52 in. (273.1 x 132 cm.)
Painted in 1978.
Blum Helman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1981
H. Kramer, "A Refuge From the Vexing 70's," New York Times, 25 March 1979, p. 31.
J. A. Lewis, "'Setting standards' at the Corcoran," ARTnews, vol. 78, no. 4, April 1979, p. 85 (illustrated in color).
B. Conrad III, “A Stroll Down Fifty-Seventh Street,” Horizon, April 1981, p. 31 (installation view illustrated in color).
J. Keats, "The essential artist – Ellsworth Kelly is a master at painting only what matters," San Francisco Magazine, August 2002, p. 90.
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, The 36th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, February-April 1979, pp. 27 and 54, no. 19 (illustrated in color).
New York, Blum Helman Gallery, Three by Four: Kelly, Stella, Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, December 1980-April 1981.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco, July 2002-January 2003, pp. 88 and 94, no. 47, pl. 55 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

The essence of form—particularly the diagonal and the curve—fascinated Ellsworth Kelly throughout his career. Spending his formative years in Paris among the avant-garde while studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, Kelly was profoundly affected by the experiments of Hans Arp, whose collages “arranged according to the laws of chance” impacted Kelly’s mode of seeing and working. “Making paintings according to the principles of chance was a way to remove my own personality. I wanted to eliminate the ‘I made this’ from my work,” Kelly said. (E. Kelly in E. C. Baker, Ellsworth Kelly: Recent Paintings and Sculptures, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 26-June 24, 1979, p. 7). In many ways, Kelly’s forms come about as accidents of perception, a shape glanced out of the corner of his eye, sketched, photographed, and ultimately translated into painterly or sculptural entities. Kelly is interested in outlines, not detail, contours where his authorial hand is not easily evident, but everywhere is present. Translating visual acuteness into material form was Kelly’s lifelong project and his uncompromising forms—painted or sculpted—convey the essence of sightedness; they are, in a sense, reifications of perception and elegance.

That act of translation is fully achieved in Diagonal with Curve VII, one of a series of monochrome single-panel “wall pieces” from the 1970s, realized as shaped canvases, wherein the wall acts as a ground or support for what Kelly described as the “image.” They are single forms that are almost impossible to describe, as their seductive characteristics imitate elemental geometries without actually miming them. Unlike the work of minimalist artists with whom he is often mistakenly categorized, Kelly’s works are not comprised merely of straight lines, squares, rectangles, or circles: they are all of these in exquisite counterbalance. They are visually understandable in an instant, their internal relationships seemingly balanced, their surface integrated. And yet to describe the form in the absence of the object is to struggle to come to terms with one’s memory. What had fascinated Kelly from the beginning was the sense of mysterious origins of these works, a source of color and shape, whether a window frame, door jam, or shadow on a stairway. “I didn’t tell anyone what it was, one didn’t do this sort of thing; I saw things that I just lifted” (E. Kelly, recorded interview, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2015, online). His canvases, then, are uncanny in the sense that they are shapes embedded in everyday life, part of one’s perceptual experience. Kelly jogs memory, places this memory in relief, and then places it on a wall.

In the apt juxtaposition of curved and straight lines, pigment becomes form. Life abounds with movement, and here in the present work, the tilt and torque of the shaped form implies directional motion, motion that, however, has been halted by its own flatness. Kazimir Malevich created such a singular form in the early years of the 20th century—elemental geometries from which he rarely strayed. Yet when he came into contact with the Italian Futurists’ idea of speed and motion, he created in 1917 a series of dissolving rhombuses that, like Kelly’s torqued plane, seem a suspension of motility. Thus in the present work, then, the spectators’ experience of movement becomes crucial to the work’s expressive meaning.

Diagonal with Curve VII comes from a period in Kelly’s seventy year career when the bright colors of his earlier work receded behind a range of grays and shaded blues. Kelly’s focus on form during this period extended across disciplines and brought two and three dimensions into alignment: painted panels find counterparts in steel. An essential aspect of Kelly’s forms is their totemic quality, the sense of singularities in stasis and internal dualities in counterpoint. Foregrounding form by graying out pigment allows each element—the curve, the point at which the curve turns, the gentle cascade of diagonal line, and the sweep upward on its return—to command the space around it, almost in a manner of displacement, and to impose on the viewer the tension of straight and curved lines playing against a flat surface plane. The form is as elegant as it is defiant. For centuries, lines defined perspective and planar surfaces were presented as windows into an illusory world. An enclosing frame bounded this space and signaled where reality ended and illusion began. Kelly complicates this history by removing the frame from what seems an opaque universe, where juxtaposed angles and curves carry no specific reference and recognition is muted. Yet in a work such as Diagonal with Curve VII, Kelly creates a unified singularity—one shape, flat, highly finished, large in scale, and utterly ambiguous in terms of form. This is Kelly’s ambition: “It’s nothing if it isn’t about something you haven’t seen before” (E. Kelly, in Baker, op. cit., p. 8).

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