Beginning in 1965, Ellsworth Kelly abandoned the traditional “figure/ground” style in which he had been working for the previous decade and returned to creating serial monochromatic panels. These paintings became more strictly geometric and removed from the observational sources that motivated his earlier paintings. Painted in 2012, Four Panels is the culmination of this lifetime of investigating the conventions of painting, dissolving boundaries and strengthening the formal qualities and rhythms of his work. Using multiple panels the way he does in the present work became a means of dividing his single monolithic surfaces and identifying the painting as a “structured object” rather than an arena of expressionist gesture.
Four Panels is a manifestation of Kelly’s explorations of the relationship between color, form and representation. A longtime disciple of the traditions of European modernism, Kelly took the ideas of Malevich, Mondrian and Arp regarding the creation of space and form with color and composition, and began to engage them with his own ideas, as Diane Waldman remarks, “Kelly combined his interests in ancient art and architecture with early twentieth century Modernism to create a body of work that is a seamless blend of past and present, almost transcending time” (D. Waldman, ‘Ellsworth Kelly’, Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., New York, 1996, p. 11). In the present work, four chromatic panels are placed in sequence. Kelly measures out the precise geometric relationship between each of the elements before putting paint to canvas. As Kelly notes, “The joined panels become a form, and thereby transferred the ground from the surface of the canvas to the wall. The result was a painting whose interest is not only in itself, but also in its relationship to things outside it” (E. Kelly quoted by M. Grynsztejn, ‘Clear-Cut: The Art of Ellsworth Kelly’, Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco, exh. cat., San Francisco, 2002, p. 15). In many ways, this work becomes a consolidation of many of Kelly’s earlier ideas as the artist addresses the canvas not just as a painterly gesture, but also as a structured object with receding and advancing colors and shifting perceptions of weight and volume.
That new and original approach included the thorough consideration (and ultimate rejection of) all established artistic concepts including composition, surface, figuration, and ground. In a letter written to John Cage in 1950, Kelly explained, “I’m not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long—to hang on walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures—they should be the wall…” (E. Kelly, quoted by G. Boehm, “In-Between Spaces: Painting, Relief, and Sculpture in the Work of Ellsworth Kelly, in Ellsworth Kelly: In Between Spaces. Work 1956-2002, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2002, p. 27). Thus, began the development of large-scale geometric canvases and the dramatic chromatic structures which bestowed sculptural qualities on a two-dimensional painting and painterly qualities on a three-dimensional sculpture.
Kelly also famously said: “I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract” (E. Kelly, quoted in Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, 1996, p. 40). Reflective of this belief, his paintings are distilled, purified and concretized abstractions of nature rooted in places and things seen and to the point where, as paintings, they function solely through a conjunction of form, scale, shape and flat monochrome color each combining to transmit a specific but indefinable aura or presence.
Functioning on the borderlines between painting and sculpture, his works are essentially indefinable objects because they simultaneously assert themselves as both tangible, physical entities of a certain scale and dimension and, at the same time, as vibrant but wholly immaterial colorful presences—ones that articulate, energize and interact in a unique and fascinating way with the blank space of the walls on which they are set. “Instead of making a picture that was an interpretation of a thing seen, or a picture of invented content” Kelly once noted to himself, his aim with his art was to find an object and “present” it as itself, autonomous and alone. They were to be “objects, unsigned, anonymous” (E. Kelly, “Notes from 1969,” ibid., p. 63).
An important exponent of the abstract art of the postwar era, Ellsworth Kelly created works of startling visual intensity, lyrically distilling visual experiences rooted in nature, which he transformed into pure abstraction through flat planes of color. Kelly’s work has influenced some of the most significant artistic movements of the past half century, ranging from Color-Field painting and Post-Painterly Abstraction to Minimalism and Hard-edge painting, while never formally belonging to any of them. Kelly has described his artistic mission thus: “I have worked 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 and 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: Recent Paintings and Sculptures, exh. cat., New York, 1979, p. 7).