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The Collection of Norman & Lyn Lear

Blue Pale Gray

Blue Pale Gray
signed with the artist’s initials and dated ‘EK 60’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
45 7/8 x 25 7/8 in. (116.5 x 65.7 cm.)
Painted in 1960.
Betty Parsons Gallery, New York
Arthur Tooth & Sons, London
E. J. Power, London, 1962
Private collection, London
Waddington Galleries, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1980
N. Lynton, "London Letter," Art International, vol. 6, no. 7, 25 September 1962, p. 49 (illustrated; titled Blue-Pale Grey).
A. Grey, "Ellsworth Kelly," Art USA Now, 1963, p. 393 (illustrated).
Ellsworth Kelly: Gemälde und Skulpturen 1966-1979, exh. cat., Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, 1980, p. 104 (illustrated).
Ellsworth Kelly, peintures et sculptures 1968-1979, exh. cat., Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980, p. 37 (illustrated).
Ellsworth Kelly: Works on Paper, exh. cat., Fort Worth Art Museum, 1987, pp. 199-200 (illustrated).
Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996, pp. 26 and 316, fig. 5 (illustrated).
Henri Matisse / Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings, exh. cat., Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 2002, pp. 52 and 60, fig. 36 and 45 (illustrated).
Ils ont regardé Matisse – Une réception abstraite États-Unis / Europe 1948-1968, exh. cat., Le Cateau, Matisse Museum, 2009, p. 133 (illustrated).
Ellsworth Kelly. Black & White, exh. cat., Munich, Haus der Kunst, 2011, p. 29, fig. 1 (illustrated).
Ellsworth Kelly: New York Drawings 1954-1962, exh. cat., New York, Matthew Marks Gallery, 2014, p. 4 (illustrated).
T. Y. Paik, Ellsworth Kelly, London and New York, 2015, pp. 339-340, figs. 184-185 (illustrated).
Ellsworth Kelly in the Hamptons, exhibition brochure, New York, Guild Hall, 2018, n.p. (illustrated).
A. Hinkle, "Kelly's Time Here Explored - Guild Hall Museum exhibits the late artist's work," East Hampton Press, 9 August 2018, pp. B4 (illustrated).
New York, Betty Parsons Gallery, Kelly, October-November 1961, n.p., no. 15.
London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Ellsworth Kelly, May-June 1962, n.p., no. 5 (titled Blue-Pale Grey).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

The subject of a major upcoming retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Ellsworth Kelly’s expansive oeuvre irrevocably altered our relationship with pictorial space and color. Blue Pale Gray is a testament to Kelly’s revolutionary ability to separate the painted shape from the pull of the exterior world. Completely negating traditional compositional values, he pushed further than even his Abstract Expressionist predecessors to foreground color, shape, and surface over all things. Gottfried Boehm poignantly explained, “The decisive point in Kelly’s development was reached when he abandoned the traditional dynamic of painting’s organization, when form emancipated itself from its customary support, the ground, so that it could from then on lead an independent existence in the visual world” (G. Boehm, “In-Between Spaces: Painting, Relief, and Sculpture in the Work of Ellsworth Kelly” in Ellsworth Kelly: Works 1956-2002, exh. cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, 2002-03, p. 33). Kelly set the stage for a greater understanding of visual traditions and an entire artform by investigating the building blocks of painting for their own intrinsic worth rather than their ability to conjure illusion or emotion.

Rendered on a tall vertical canvas, Blue Pale Gray exhibits Kelly’s mastery of space, color, and composition. Using only two shades of paint, a pale blue and a light gray, the artist has constructed a pictorial dynamism that demands the viewer’s immediate attention. Kelly’s signature consideration to sharp detail and clean edges is on full view here and gives the painting a decidedly flat, two-dimensional quality while also creating an optical vibration that alludes to cut paper and the interplay of positive and negative space. “I have wanted to free shape from its ground,” the artist once noted, “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, quoted in, Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles and Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1984, n.p.). Like Henri Matisse's Blue Nude II (1952) that symbolizes the idea of a female nude, extracted from its background to accentuate the beauty of the simplified forms, Kelly's shape floats in a space without attention to Earth’s gravity. It hovers with an inner intensity not beholden to the world around it.

The 1950s and 60s were an especially formative time for Kelly as he achieved growing international acclaim and the evolution of his practice into the dynamic territory for which he is still celebrated. After spending several years in Paris studying and refining his style while becoming acquainted with other avant-garde artists like John Cage, Jean Arp, and Constantin Brâncuşi, Kelly returned to New York in 1954 and began to synthesize what he had learned abroad. His first American exhibition was at Betty Parsons’s gallery in 1956, and he was included in the Young America 1957 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art the following year. Despite this rising success, Kelly’s work was often considered ‘too European’ and was at odds with many of the dominant trends. However, it was this divergence that would retroactively cement the artist’s work within the annals of art history as he established a visual and theoretical bridge between the abstraction of the early-twentieth century and the burgeoning Minimalist tendencies.

Though firmly entrenched in the clean, crisp lines of the Hard Edge movement, works like Blue Pale Gray are inextricably linked to artistic innovations of the past. Kelly’s geometric abstractions exist as self-supporting shapes, but the artist was often inspired by the world around him and the creative luminaries that came before. Shadows filtered through the architecture of Paris and heavily abstracted organic forms share the stage with lessons learned from Picasso, Matisse, and the late works of Claude Monet. All of these sources found their way into Kelly’s visual vocabulary even if their influence is not immediately obvious. As Simon Schama so aptly put it, these compositions come from Kelly’s “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, Nov. 8, 2015). Distilling flat forms and potent juxtapositions of color and space from myriad sources, Kelly’s larger oeuvre is a treatise to observation and contemplation. Shapes like those in the present example appear both familiar and detached, and this uneasy relationship ultimately allows for a more fruitful observation of the canvas as a whole.

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