Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Curve V is one from a series of dramatic canvases that the artist painted in 1982. This expansive field of vibrant color is the culmination of over three decades of artistic innovation in which Kelly sought to foreground color and form, not for their representational qualities, but purely for their emotional resonance. The curved form in particular had fascinated the artist throughout his career and came about almost as an accident of perception, a shape glanced out of the corner of his eye, which he then sketched, photographed, and ultimately translated into painterly or sculptural entities.
Kelly is primarily interested in outlines, contours where his authorial hand is not easily evident, but is present everywhere. Translating this visual acuteness into material form was the artist’s lifelong project and his uncompromising forms—painted or sculpted—convey the essence of sightedness; they are, in a sense, the epitome of perception and elegance.
The intensity of the color in Red Curve V ensures that, here, pigment also becomes form. Life abounds with a sweep of movement denoted by the shape of the canvas, as the tilt and torque of the shape implies directional motion. In this respect, Kelly follows Kazimir Malevich’s shaped forms from the early years of the twentieth century, as they act as an early example of form serving as the foundation for movement.
No longer restricted to the boundaries of a rectangular canvas, in this work color is elevated to higher status, liberated from the secondary role that it traditionally plays in art. In its application to the canvas, Kelly suppresses the brushstroke to its most minimal recognition, applying the color as smoothly as possible across the picture plane. As he has insisted, “In my own work, 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). By doing so, the red seemingly ceases to be paint applied to a canvas, but 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.
An important exponent of 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. His art has influenced some of the most significant 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).