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Yellow Panel with Red Curve

Yellow Panel with Red Curve
signed, titled and dated 'YELLOW PANEL WITH RED CURVE KELLY 1989' (on the backing board); signed again twice and dated 'KELLY 1989' (on the overlap)
oil on two joined shaped canvases 
92 5/8 x 113 3/8 in. (235.3 x 288 cm.)
Executed in 1989.
Joseph Helman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2003
New York, Joseph Helman Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly Masterworks: Two Panel Paintings, November 1998, no. 7 (illustrated).
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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“From the beginning of the twentieth century, modern artists have been preoccupied with fragmenting the world and seeking essences of form and experience. Since then, artists have measured themselves against, and have elaborated upon, these impulses within the embrace of a modern tradition that continues into the future.” Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly’s Yellow Panel with Red Curve fastidiously shuns the dominance of postwar American abstraction, as the conjoined planes of vibrant yellow and red represent nothing but form and color itself. The essence of form—particularly the curve—had fascinated Kelly since his formative years in Paris studying the work of the European avant-garde. Here, he saw first hand the work of Hans Arp, whose collages—and the way their forms were arranged according to the laws of chance—impacted the way that Kelly saw the world. The American artist’s arrangements are the result of chance glimpses snatched through the window of a moving car, or from a train as it speed through the countryside. The gentle curve of a hill, contrasted next the formal geometry of a building all sparked Kelly’s fascination with the juxtaposition of shapes and forms.

In Yellow Panel with Red Curve, Kelly brings together two of his most consistent and dynamic arrangements. By contrasting the strict geometry of the yellow panel with the gently arcing curve of its red neighbor, the artist produces a form that is packed with vitality and energy. This is further enhanced by the color combination; red and yellow, two of the three primary colors, and when placed next to each, the result is a chromatic resonance that is everlasting.

In this juxtaposition of the curved and the straight line, movement abounds; the tilt and torque of the shaped form implies directional motion, motion that, however, 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 he 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 torqued plane seem a suspension of movement. In Yellow Panel with Red Curve, then, the spectator’s experience of movement becomes crucial to the work’s expressive meaning.

“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.” Ellsworth Kelly

The flatness of the surface is also of paramount importance to the understanding of works such as this. "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, 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.

Later in life, Kelly was famously quoted as saying, “I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract” (E. Kelly, quoted in Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996, p. 40). Kelly's interest in the abstract form rather than representational imagery was shaped by various individuals—Picasso, Matisse, Arp and his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, to name a few. His early figurative drawings from the 1940s, flat and void of volume, recall the Byzantine and Romanesque art and architecture that he was exposed to while living and working in France as a young man. These influences combined and allowed Kelly to begin a journey of self-discovery outside the realm of Abstract Expressionism, which was the predominate movement of the era. Eventually, it permitted him to reach to the level of pure abstraction possessed in later works like Yellow Panel with Red Curve.

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