“My forms are geometric, but they don't interact in a geometric sense. They're just forms that exist everywhere, even if you don't see them.” Ellsworth Kelly
Throughout his seventy year career, Ellsworth Kelly sought to undertake a rigorous exploration of line, form, and color. Painted in 2012, Blue Relief Over White—with its large blue curved painted panel placed on top of a larger white canvas ‘ground’—extends his investigations beyond the traditional flat painted surface into a third dimension. The visual intensity of the blue combined with the integrity of the shaped canvases creates, what Jean-Pierre Criqui, curator of contemporary art at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, describes as an “interplay of differences and similarities [that] weaves a work of powerful unity” (J. Criqui, Ellsworth Kelly: At Ninety, New York, 2013).
One constant during Kelly’s life has been his mission to challenge and update the Modernist monochrome. Continuing from Jean Arps’s Constellation Reliefs of the early twentieth century, in works such as Blue Relief Over White, Kelly continues Arp’s dialogues with new modes of abstraction, introducing bold, high-keyed colors into the equation. The intensity of Kelly’s painted surface is the result of the artist laying down numerous layers of oil paint, removing any trace of expressionistic brushwork to leave a surface of pure, unadulterated pigment. Unlike earlier single panel canvases, these conjoined paintings seems to push this field of color outwards, engaging the viewer more directly. As Roberta Smith of the New York Times writes, “The results are not so much paintings as crisp, flat objects devoid of spatial illusion. Yet the best of them are so perfectly made that we tend to forget about their physical nature, concentrating solely on their visual effects instead. Their perfection creates an aura of eternal newness that can sometimes seem antiseptic but just as often is central to their power” (R. Smith, “At Ninty, Still Riveting the Mind’s Eye,” New York Times, June 3, 2013, via https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/04/arts/design/ellsworth-kelly-on-view-in-new-york. [accessed 9/13/20]).
In Blue Relief Over White, with the juxtaposition of curved and straight lines, pigment becomes form. The curved edges of the blue canvas create shadow and spaces, acting in conjunction with the white canvas below; this creates a form that implies movement — one, however, that has been halted by its own flatness. Kazimir Malevich created such a singular form in the early years of the twentieth century, elemental geometries from which he rarely strayed. Yet when Malevich came into contact with the Italian Futurists’ idea of speed and motion, he created in 1917 a series of dissolving rhombuses that like Kelly’s planes seem a suspension of motility. In the present work, the spectators’ experience of movement becomes crucial to the work’s expressive meaning.
An essential aspect of Kelly’s forms are their totemic quality, the sense of singularities in stasis and internal dualities in counterpoint. Foregrounding form by using vibrant pigment allows the central element to command the space around it, almost in a manner of displacement, and to impose on the viewer the tension of straight and curved lines playing against a flat surface plane. This form is as elegant as it is defiant. For centuries, lines defined perspective and planar surfaces were presented as windows into an illusory world. An enclosing frame bounded this space and signaled where reality ended and illusion began. Kelly complicates this history by removing the frame from what seems an opaque universe, where juxtaposed angles and curves carry no specific reference and recognition is muted. Yet in a work such as Blue Relief Over White, Kelly creates a unified singularity—two shapes, flat, highly finished surfaces, large in scale, and utterly ambiguous in terms of form. This is Kelly’s ambition: “It’s nothing if it isn’t about something you haven’t seen before” (E. Kelly, as quoted by E. C. Baker, Ellsworth Kelly: Recent Paintings and Sculptures, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 26-June 24, 1979, p. 8).