The intense sweep of pure, rich, unadulterated color that constitutes Yellow Panel is the result of an almost four decade long journey in which Ellsworth Kelly sought to challenge the longstanding traditions of painting. Its expansive scope is not restricted by the boundaries of a traditional rectangular canvas, nor is it constrained by representative notions of color or form. Instead each of these element exists in its own right and without recourse to the other; by liberating the canvas from its traditional role of a “window” through which to view the world, Kelly instead imbues it with a striking sense of freedom from centuries of painterly tradition. Indeed, he subsumes the conventional elements of painting (gesture, form, foreground/background etc.) into a work of art that resonates with just one force—color. Saturated with scorching, high-keyed tones of bright yellow that covers the entire surface of the canvas from edge-to-edge, Yellow Panel becomes a canvas that exudes with an almost palpable sense of radiant heat.
Despite its simple oil and canvas construction, Kelly’s Yellow Panel is also an intensely sculptural object too. By restricting the surface of the work to just one color and by freeing it of its representative obligations, the artist creates an autonomous object it in its own right. And, in releasing the form from the confines of a rectangular canvas and the boundaries of 90-degree angles, he grants it autonomy in its expression of size, shape and color. By assigning a non-rectangular shape to the canvas, Kelly forces us to identify it as a medium, rather than as a window through which we view an image, a scene or even the action of artistic expression.
In this autonomous role, the freestanding form achieves what merely painted shapes cannot: three-dimensionality. By abandoning its rectangular canvas and proclaiming itself a stand-alone figure, the form takes on a certain sculptural element. In other words, its background is not the picture plane, but the wall; its existence is not on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, but in the environment in which it hangs. It is an attempt by Kelly to bridge the gap between painting and sculpture, to bestow sculptural qualities to a two-dimensional painting and pictorial qualities to a three-dimensional object.
"In my own work,” Kelly once said, “I have never been interested in painterliness (or what I find is) a personal handwriting, putting marks on canvas. My work is a different way of seeing and making something and which has a different use" (E. Kelly, Notes of 1969, reprinted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 93). Therefore, in works such as this, vibrant colorful hues ceases to be merely paint applied to a canvas, but, rather, it becomes color existing in its purest form, an entity in and of itself. It is both figure and ground, a fusion of traditional pictorial elements into one glorified existence. Thus, it becomes what the artist set out to achieve, a new approach to the language of painting.
Reaching this point was the result of a journey that saw Kelly play an influential role in a number of important post-war artistic movements including Minimal art, color field painting, hard-edge painting, and Post-painterly Abstraction without becoming fully a part of any of them. Instead he began to forge his own path drawing on influences as varied as Picasso, Mondrian, Arp and Arp’s wife Taeuber-Arp. It was while he living in Paris in the early 1950s that he first began to think about a new direction for his art—moving away from the omnipresent idea of composition and the need to balance abstract or figurative elements within a particular composition. In a letter to John Cage in 1950, Kelly wrote “I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long—to hang on the walls of houses as pictures. 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.’ We must make our art like the Egyptians, the Chinese and the African & Island primitives—with their relation to life. It should meet the eye—direct…” (E. Kelly, quoted by (G. Boehm, ‘In-Between Spaces,’ in Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Ostfilden-Ruit, 2002, p. 27). Thus, Kelly set out to disrupt the conventions of painting by establishing a completely new relationship between the object and its environs.
Paintings such as Yellow Panel have thus become some of the most enduring forms of Ellsworth Kelly’s long and distinguished career. The simplicity of the gentle, graceful arcs that so eloquently defines this particular example belies the complex and deeply thought out artistic process that is Kelly’s signature and which enables him to create incredibly powerful and emotional works out of simple lines, form, and color. He created works of startling visual intensity, lyrically distilling glimpsed visual experiences rooted in nature or architecture, 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).