Ellsworth Kelly’s art derives from his impressions of what he called the “essences of form” he witnessed in the natural world (E. Kelly, “Fragmentation and the Single Form,” in Artist’s Choice: Ellsworth Kelly, New York, 1990, n.p.). Impressed literally into discrete shapes of singular clarity and stillness, such experiences seem almost to seek the physical forms Kelly renders. Committed to the act of painting, Kelly nonetheless investigates issues of autonomy for shape, lifting it from the flatness of the two-dimensional pictorial field to enter three-dimensionality. Sparring between relief and traditional notions of painting, Kelly nonetheless is committed to both. Standing before Green Panel, one perceives flatness, a near melding of canvas to its support. Yet a slight movement, and shadow and light deepen the form, articulating its relationship to the wall, of which it is a part. “I have worked to free shape from its round, and then to work the shape to that it has a definite relationship to the space around it (E. Kelly, in E. C. Baker, Ellsworth Kelly: Recent Paintings and Sculptures, exh. cat., New York, 1979, p. 7). Part of that space includes the wall, as the artist has averred: “To hell with pictures—they should be the wall—even better—on the outside wall of large buildings. Or stood up outside as billboards or a kind of modern ‘icon’” (E. Kelly, quoted by G. Boehm, “In-Between Spaces,” in Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Ostfilden-Ruit, 2002, p. 27).
Green Panel is a work of immense vitality and dignity, “meet[ing] the eye—direct,” as Kelly wrote of the effect he sought to have on the viewer. The strength and singularity of this work and Kelly’s pictorial vision could be detected early on when, in 1948, he went to live in Paris on the G.I. Bill. His proclivity toward solitariness, toward individual observation and contemplation, found its counterpart in post-war Paris. “Paris was gray after the war. I liked being alone. I liked being a stranger. I didn’t speak French very well, and I liked the silence” (Kelly, quoted in H. Cotter, “Ellsworth Kelly,” New York Times, December 27, 2015). While there, Kelly met Surrealist Hans Arp and the sculptor Constantin Brâncusi. Both artists came to exert a profound influence on Kelly, the former through his use of chance procedures to achieve startling, anti-authorial compositional results, and the latter, to search out a simplification of natural forms. “I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me” (Kelly, in H. Cotter, “A Giant Surveys His Rich Past,” New York Times, October 13, 1996).
Green Panel comprises every goal Kelly held for his art. Discriminating about surface, the smoothness of sheen, the depth and richness of its forest green color, and the subtlety and seductiveness of its shape, announce Kelly’s reductive yet sensuous pictorial vision, his tendency toward anonymity, which ironically becomes iconic. Eschewing what he thought of as the cult of personality that was a by-product of the Abstract Expressionists’ hey-day in America, which by living for seven years in Paris, he bypassed, Kelly sought an art that cultivated objectivity, not subjectivity. Having reduced pictorial incident to a minimum, Green Panel consists of three sides, one curve, and one acute angel, yet it seemingly narrates an entire epic of dynamism as the eye moves from one corner to its opposite, glides over the single arc only to drop to the sharp angle below. Considering the essential geometric forms of squares and circles “too familiar, too complete,” Kelly here hones a soft, subtle shape, consisting of acute and obtuse angles, joined at the outer edges by a wonderfully floating curve. Green Panel achieves a glorious autonomy introducing, as he states, “clarity and measure within itself, of its parts (angles, curves, edges, and mass); so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space” (E. Kelly, “Fragmentation and the Single Form,” op.cit., n.p.).
Kelly’s robust distillations come from his deep understanding and sympathy with Kazimir Malevich’s re-conception of painting as a formal act of “spatial liberation” (Ibid.). Like Malevich, Kelly sought to “liberate shape” from its planar surface and came to feel that while in Paris between 1949 and 1954, he achieved this in a series of “join-panel paintings” (Ibid.). This is a key collation of the term painting and panel, the notion of himself as a painter of reliefs, in some sense in which panels painted in “solid colors with no incident, lines, marks, brushstrokes, or depicted shapes,” could exist autonomously as form, that is to say, forms affixed to a wall in which the support then transferred from the canvas to the vertical support.
Green Panel is such a work, a path away from the canvas per se, from the act of painting as an expression of “action,” and ideologically, as a statement against the autonomy of the work itself as existing without relation to the space around it. Kelly emphatically sought a relationship between the work and its space: “I felt that one of the most important developments in the history of abstraction has been the artist’s struggle to free form from depiction and materiality” (Ibid.). But make no mistake, the material nature of Kelly’s work is essential; it is, however, material only in the sense that paint, canvas, stretchers are not denied. Rather, they are the vehicles through which Kelly propels his color-forms into space. There they hang, as “fragments of forms” that re-enact scenes from everyday life. It is in this sense, that Kelly fragments the essence of forms, distilling them from the “jumble,” as he writes of objects layered around us. But freeing form from “visual chaos,” Kelly creates a precise and pointed perception of form in contrast to the random and layered perception one generally has of the world. Green Panel is, in a sense, a chromatic form removed by the artist from chaos, offered as a stabilizing and energizing force of nature