The present lot is from the estate of Robert and Jean Shoenberg, prominent patrons and collectors of Post-War and Contemporary art from St. Louis. Their collection included master works from the 1950s and 1960s, including major paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and others. White Black, 1961, superbly encapsulates Kelly's signature language of abstraction and is from a group of black and white paintings from this period, often dramatically vertical. As Kelly insisted, "In my 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 quoted in "Notes of 1969," reprinted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, p. 93). This different approach renders Kelly's paintings, in the words of the prominent art historian Yve-Alain Bois, "indexical." Since his first forays into abstraction while living in Paris in 1949, Kelly worked with indices, that is, marks in his memory left like footprints by the curvilinear forms in life, ranging from Romanesque architecture he encountered in France to found objects and picturesque shadows, using these forms not metaphorically, but as pure visual experiences in themselves. As Kelly proclaimed, "Making art has first of all to do with honesty. My first lesson was to see objectively, to erase all 'meaning' of the thing seen. Then only could the real meaning of it be understood and felt" (Ibid.).
Kelly managed to derive a visual force comparable to the most loaded bravura brushwork of Abstract Expressionism in his audaciously reduced forms, which were a dramatic riposte to the dominant American style of painting. He frequently worked in bichromatic compositions, often using chance procedures of collage. As in the present work, he heightens the tension and dynamic interaction between painted form and the physical boundaries of the canvas, through his characteristic play with perceptual ambiguity between positive and negative space, figure and ground. A perfect materialization of Kelly's aesthetic ideas and his incessant interrogation of the limits of visual meaning, White Black has an immediate, unmediated effect that recreates for the viewer certain transient yet astonishingly vivid instances of the artist's own immediate and autonomous visual experience of the physical world.