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Green Curve in Relief

Green Curve in Relief
signed, inscribed and dated 'KELLY EK 995 2009' (on the overlap)
oil on two joined canvases
73 x 55 1/2 x 2 5/8 in. (185.4 x 141 x 6.7 cm.)
Painted in 2009.
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2011
Rome, Villa Medici: The French Academy in Rome, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres/Ellsworth Kelly, June-September 2010, p. 49, cat. no. 40 (illustrated).
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Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

One of the leading proponents of Hard-Edge Abstraction in the mid-twentieth century, Ellsworth Kelly established a legacy that has inspired countless generations as they grapple with the nuances of shape, color, and surface. Green Curve in Relief is a dynamic illustration of the artist’s ability to coax vibrant energy from duo-chromatic compositions that rely solely on fields of unbroken color and subtle manipulations of form. The real power of Kelly’s work lies in his inspired ability to make minute adjustments to his compositions to realize the most compelling juxtapositions. Working tirelessly to achieve the ideal balance, the artist has noted that “a quarter of an inch, a half inch off the angle can make a big difference... My eye is like a gyroscope, it can find the right balance” (E. Kelly, quoted in R. Storr, “Interview with Ellsworth Kelly”, in MoMA, vol. 2, no. 5, June 1999, p. 7). Relying on his own observations and translating them into visually sumptuous treatises on form and color, Kelly established a lasting vocabulary of plastic forms that were as striking as they were singular within the progression of abstract painting.

Monumental in scale, Green Curve in Relief is a poignant example of Kelly’s ability to fully engage the viewer with seemingly simple means. Oriented in a vertical format, the composition is divided into two discrete sections. The upper portion is given to the titular green curve, a verdant expanse of emerald that extends for nearly three-quarters of the work beginning at the top edge and gently sweeping toward the bottom. Kelly has constructed an ever so slight radius in his raised portion so that a soft sweep is noticeable on further viewing. To emphasize this formal choice, the green area extends a few inches out toward the viewer, casting a shadow on the lower section. This use of a raised ground speaks to the artist’s interest not only in painting but also in sculpture and the interstitial space between the two traditional formats. The artist, speaking to this fact, noted, “I have wanted to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges, amount of mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness” (E. Kelly, Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles and Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1984, unpaged). Painted the same year that the artist moved to a farmhouse in Spencertown, New York where he would primarily live and work for the rest of his life, Green Curve in Relief prefigures the celebrated Chatham Series which further pushed the idea of juxtaposed elements and concentrated on the space between art object and audience.

Kelly, like many of his contemporaries, was able to travel to Europe as part of the G.I. Bill following WWII. From 1948 to 1954, the artist lived in Paris where he came into contact with the vibrant Modernist aesthetics of figures such as Francis Picabia, Sophie Tauber-Arp, and Constantin Brancusi. As he conversed with these artists and learned from their practices, Kelly also absorbed the rich history that surrounded him. Combining a true affinity for the art and architecture that came before with a wholly Modern sensibility, the young artist reassessed his own practice and created an oeuvre that pushed the edges of the artistic status quo. Working within a time of fervent abstraction, Kelly still relied on allusions to physical space and actual objects throughout his career. Though works like Green Curve in Relief may look like pure geometric abstraction, they have their basis in real-world observations. The artist would often view an ancient arch, a richly painted canvas, or organic natural forms and use them as his starting point. Simon Schama, speaking to this fact, explained that 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” (S. Schama, cited in, R. Cooke, “Ellsworth Kelly: ‘I want to live another 15 years’”, The Guardian, November 8, 2015, online). His works are then less mathematical and instead have a very real connection to lived experience. This humanity was something Kelly emphasized and is clearly visible in works that approximate the size of a person or take their shape from the natural world.

Paintings like Green Curve in Relief hinge upon the immediate edge made by Kelly’s juxtaposition of color with a white ground. Unlike some of his colleagues who embraced swathes of bleeding color and gestural torrents of paint, the artist relied on an attention to meticulously worked forms that are crisp, bold, and optically nearing perfection. However, these works are far from the more mechanical mode of his Minimalist colleagues. Eschewing any semblance of cold reproduction or inorganic perfection, Kelly instead worked to create something tactile and inviting. When he first exhibited his geometric abstractions in 1959 as part of the pivotal Sixteen Americans exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, they were not seen as aloof or cold, and instead were noted for 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 Sixteen Americans, exh. cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1959, p. 31). Even the slight curve in the present example floats on the wall rather than slicing downward with the force of gravity. This subtle difference is a testament to Kelly’s ability to free his works from their traditional support and the ground and in doing so let them exist independently within our view.

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