Ellsworth Kelly’s Lake is the first of two paintings inspired by Paul Cézanne’s masterpiece The Gulf of Marseille Seen From L’Estaque, circa 1885, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In the late 19th century the French artist revolutionized the nature of painting by using color to define form as he rendered the landscape of his beloved Mediterranean in discreet passages of blue, green and warm ochres. A century later Kelly took this idea a step further, arguing that color is form, and using the chromatic brilliance of the pigment to control the parameters of his finished canvas. The present work is one of two paintings based on Cézanne’s seascapes; its sister painting, Lake II—painted 20 years later in 2002—was acquired by the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen, Switzerland the year after it was completed. Together, these two large scale canvases by one of the period’s most radical and innovative artists not only pay homage to one of the most important painters in the artistic canon, but also continue the dialogue by taking the debate that Cézanne started to its natural conclusion.
As a teenager, Kelly’s mother had given him an art history book, and one work in particular stood out—Cézanne’s haunting Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan, circa 1885-86 (Minneapolis Institute of Art). “When I was young, about fifteen or sixteen,” Kelly recalled, “my mother got me a book of masterpieces from the beginning of painting—from Giotto to Grant Wood… My favorite painting was the chestnut trees of Cézanne…the black branches against the sky. I took it out and put it up” (E. Kelly, quoted by K. Sachs, “Cézanne and Kelly: Painting Form through Color,” in J. Rishel & K. Sachs, Cézanne and Beyond, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009, p. 433). The stark silhouettes of the trees set against a pallid gray sky began to lay the seeds of an idea in Kelly that color could play an important, if not pre-eminent, role in determining form. “I want the painting shape and color to come into the room, not be a painting, but a presence,” he said (E. Kelly, quoted by K. Sachs, ibid. p. 443).
Throughout his career, Kelly sought to eradicate all forms of objectivity from his paintings. Taking memories, and utilizing glimpses of shapes or silhouettes seen in nature or architecture, the artist eliminated all figurative references from them, leaving nothing but form and color. As such, his work can be viewed as an extension of the project started by Cézanne, both artists understanding what was of utmost importance was a new reality, initially inspired by something or someone real, and which then took on a life and meaning all its own.
Thus, a chance glimpse of an unidentified lake prompted Kelly to recall one of his favorite paintings, and with his unique brand of aesthetic economy, he produced a striking canvas with both a powerful personal and aesthetic resonance. As the artist himself recalled, “There was a L’Estaque painting [at the Metropolitan Museum of Art] by Cézanne, sixty to seventy five percent of it has water. Water is a blue shape. I was reminded of the bay in that painting when I saw a lake on top of a hill, and I made a sketch of it. The painting [Lake] was done in 1982. Now I realize the things I attracted to when I was very young have resulted in other things. It was an indirect influence. Every time I go to the Met I would touch base with that picture, the shape of the bay, blue water against green landscape. ‘This is the painting I really like best in the whole museum.’ And I said: ‘Why is it that way?’ you see, I guess it’s because of the blue, the dominance of the blue” (E. Kelly, quoted by K. Sachs, ibid, p. 442).
Paintings such as Lake are some of the most enduring forms of Ellsworth Kelly’s long and distinguished career. The simple marriage of form and color belies the complex and deeply thought out artistic process that is the artist’s signature and which enables him to create incredibly powerful and emotional works. He created works of startling visual intensity, lyrically distilling visual experiences rooted in nature, which he transformed into pure abstraction through flat planes of color. His art has influenced some of the most significant artistic movements of the past half century, yet remained distinctly his own. “I have worked to free shape from its ground,” he once commented, “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).