With an eye toward essential forms, Ellsworth Kelly perfectly couples the graceful simplicity of form with unassuming yet deftly executed technique throughout his oeuvre. Borrowing elements of Color Field, hard-edge painting and Minimalism, Kelly crafted a distinctive style all his own. He began to make abstract paintings in 1949; in 1952, his discovery of the late work of Monet inspired him to paint more candidly, utilizing large formats, and exploring seriality and monochrome. By the late 1950s, Kelly’s paintings featured shapes and planar masses that bridged American geometric abstraction with reductive Minimalism.
Blue Orange, 1957, was gifted to Robert Indiana by Ellsworth Kelly. Dedicated ‘For Robert’ on the reverse, it is a unique treasure and vestige of the mentorship that formed between two of the most iconic American artists of our time. Kelly was Indiana’s introduction to the famed Coenties Slip, and after finding themselves neighbors there in 1956, Kelly and Indiana forged a friendship around the joys and struggles of being an artist in mid-century New York. This friendship eventually turned into a close and intimate relationship, one that would spark immense creative energy, and ultimately influence the work of both Kelly and Indiana for the rest of their careers. Kelly and Indiana were not alone on the renowned Slip, and feeding off the energy coursing through the community, which also included greats like Agnes Martin and James Rosenquist, it was here that Kelly and Indiana laid the foundations for prolific careers.
The relationship between Kelly and Indiana would eventually come to an end in the early 1960s, and the heartbreak would ultimately lead Indiana to create his iconic LOVE imagery. Designed for the Museum of Modern Art’s Christmas card in 1965, the tricolor arrangement he selected for LOVE—red, blue and green—was ostensibly influenced by Kelly’s most recognizable palette. The simple four-letter word may have been rooted in melancholy and loss, but would transpire into a beacon of hope and optimism that would come to shape Indiana’s career.
While in general Kelly’s art derives from untraceable sources, in this case, the impetus of the work is clear. For as he has stated, in one way and another, his forms have “always been there… [They are about] something you have…seen before” (E. Kelly, Henry Geldzahler, Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings by Ellsworth Kelly, Washington and Boston, 1953-1954, n. p.) With its sweeping organic shape, Kelly’s Blue Orange is a larger-than-life-sized study in nature, abstracted, and distinctly two-dimensional. Seeming to emit a warm halo of light from its perfectly calibrated hue, it is quintessential Kelly: abstract and organic, minimal yet powerful, and perfectly deliberate in its simplicity. Kelly always looked to nature for inspiration in his paintings. His sources have ranged from photographs he had taken of his urban and rural surroundings, to the simply lived experiences of his every day. Like in the present work, Kelly elevated even the simplest experience in nature—the organic shape of the peel of an orange, held against a crisp blue sky—to be an intimate exploration of purity in form and color. One imagines the sentimentality the work carried for Indiana, who guarded it in his personal collection until his death, and the memory of their shared experience on Pier 7 in southern Manhattan, near Coenties Slip, some sixty years prior.
Of vital importance to Kelly's early development was the example of Jean and Sophie Taeuber-Arp's geometric and biomorphic works, as well as the modern master Henri Matisse, whose work he saw during his formative years while living in Paris between 1949-1952. Much like Matisse, Kelly's true concerns were based in the pursuit of pure form and color. In particular, Matisse's glorious late "cut-outs", which are collages consisting of sharply delineated, cut-out shapes of pure color, appear to have made a powerful impact. It was then Kelly begin exploring the potential of curved forms and shaped canvases to articulate what Mark Rosenthal has described as a "unique body" for a mass of color. (M. Rosenthal, "Experiencing Presence," ibid., p. 63) Like in Henri Matisse’s La Gerbe, 1953, which coaxes a veritable garden from ceramic tile cutouts, Kelly creates an almost sculptural presence of textures and materials in his two-dimensional works, in which the play of positive and negative creates a third dimension, and in this case, an orange peel from Pier 7. With the flat yet organically curved shape set inside the traditionally rectangular format of a picture, the fluid lines of the orange peel are seemingly pushing at the boundaries of its material limits—the edges of the canvas—as if it were radiating and expanding from within the picture plane.
Ellsworth Kelly’s art derives from his impressions of what he called the “essences of form” witnessed in the natural world (E. Kelly, “Fragmentation and the Single Form,” in Artist’s Choice: Ellsworth Kelly, New York, 1990, n.p.). Like the swirling California seascapes of David Hockney or Henri Matisse’s Red Algae on a Sky Blue Background (1952), organic forms weave their way into Kelly’s abstractions—traces of nature refined for contemplation. 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 Rothko-esque colors 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. “In his exquisite portraits of blossoms and leaves, just as in his groundbreaking color abstractions, Ellsworth Kelly addresses fundamental artistic questions about the relation of form to contour and the subtle interplay between space and plane, positive and negative, and figure and ground—concerns that underscore his work to this day.” (M. Prather and M. Semff, quoted in Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011, p. 229.)