Towering over nine feet high, Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Curve VII (1982) is a lyrical and impressive object. Kelly’s practice, which blurs the boundaries between painting, sculpture, and relief, has sometimes been aligned with the aesthetics of hard-edge Minimalism, but is in fact far from programmatic: his works are born, rather, of an intuitive and emotional sensibility, and find luxuriant joy in color and form. The tall, rectangular canvas of Red Curve VII is divided diagonally into two planes of red and white. The red half, filling the upper right, curves outward slightly into the white half, subtly disrupting the work’s rectilinear geometry. Like a sail caught in the wind, or a bow-string slowly pulled taut, this swooping line introduces a dynamic tension. Its razor-sharp clarity heightens the chromatic pressure between the two color-fields: the vast surface meets us with a high-keyed, expansive energy, seeming even larger than its actual size. Red Curve VII exemplifies the lucid directness and pleasure of Kelly’s work, employing boldly simple means in a nuanced exploration of the language and expressive potential of art. As Gottfried Boehm has written, “The artist shows his cards; he does not refer to programs, manifestos, or concepts but relies entirely on the power of colors and forms, of curves, diagonals, and straight lines, and what they are capable of revealing. Kelly’s art is directed towards viewers who trust their eyes and wish to use them. What he gives them is the experience of an extraordinary sensuous and spiritual intensity, of a euphoric affirmation and a blissful abundance: ‘look!’” (G. Boehm, “In-Between Spaces: Painting, Relief and Sculpture in the Work of Ellsworth Kelly”, Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat. Fondation Beyeler, Basel 2002, p. 39).
Born in Newburgh, New York, in 1923, Kelly took a path unusual for American artists of his generation. From 1948 to 1954, while the New York School was loudly seeking to set itself apart from European artistic practice, Kelly lived in Paris, where he had previously been deployed in a camouflage battalion during the Second World War. He studied Egyptian reliefs at the Louvre, and manuscripts and mosaics at the Byzantine Institute. In 1950, he met Hans Arp – who aimed to harness unconscious thought in his abstract, biomorphic paintings and collages – as well as other artists including Francis Picabia and Georges Vantongerloo. While he was undoubtedly influenced by this artistic milieu (and on his return to America was seen as something of a “European” painter), it was an entirely personal epiphany that would lead him to his mature practice. “I became more interested in the physical structure of Paris,” Kelly recalled, “the stonework of the old buildings and bridges, and preferred to study and by influenced by it rather than by contemporary art. The forms found in the vaulting of a cathedral or a splatter of tar on a road seemed more valid and instructive and a more voluptuous experience than either geometric or action painting … Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there already made, and I could take from everything; it all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched panes, lines of a roadmap, a fragment of Le Corbusier’s Swiss Pavilion, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same, anything goes” (E. Kelly, quoted in J. Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York 1971, pp. 20, 28-30). He began to make paintings derived from these “found” fragments of his seen environment – a window, a shadow on a stairwell, the arch of a bridge and its reflection in water – which, while entirely abstract and reductive, pointed back to direct visual observation. Indexing the real world’s contours and forms, these abstractions were charged with vitality in their affirmation of reality’s structural principles. In later works like Red Curve VII, Kelly was able to use invented shapes informed by the same intuitive intelligence.
Kelly’s forms, writes John Coplans, “link themselves not to geometry or mathematical order but to the indeterminate and the sentient. Kelly’s art is emotive. Yet, ultimately, his is an emotion tempered by measure and control, by a crucial and incisive sense of inner direction” (J. Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York 1971, p. 94). This blend of control and exploratory feeling is uniquely Kelly’s own, and is entirely distinct from the epic emotion of the Abstract Expressionists, or indeed the aggressive rigor of Minimalism. His work is neither polemical, discursive, reactionary or theoretical. Nonetheless, the brightness and billboard scale of Red Curve VII make for an intense, even provocative visual statement. Free of the figure-ground hierarchy of traditional composition, the painting creates a direct spatial relation between viewer and surface. Like the other “curves” that Kelly has made using shaped canvases, it is an object that activates the wall around it, making architectural space as contingent as the pictorial plane. Its plunging central arc, like the curve of a graph, seems to be part of something larger than that which is contained within the canvas: it transcends the rational, rectangular coordinates of artists like Mondrian, and evokes an idea of reality as ultimately beyond our total control or comprehension. In this near-overwhelming impact, however, the work – singing with its vivid red and gliding diagonal divide – delivers an equal measure of pure visual bliss. For all the precision of his formal syntax, Kelly’s painting is voluptuously alive, and, as Coplans suggests, marked by a particular European outlook. “Kelly’s admiration for Matisse”, he writes, “has invariably been linked to the latter’s late ‘jazz’ compositions and their chromatic and rhythmic improvisations. But perhaps the quality that links Kelly to Matisse – and to Monet – most emphatically is the intense hedonism of his color, which is classically French and Mediterranean, or of the south, and not at all tinged with northern or Expressionistic anxiety. Kelly’s color is sensuous and joyous, and though absolutely synthetic and non-referential, it has manifest buoyancy and elasticity of spirit” (J. Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York 1971, p. 85). As pleasurable as it is profound, Red Curve VII is a vibrant testament to that spirit, exulting in the beauty of the visible world.