Ellsworth Kelly's path to artistic freedom of expression is accomplished by focusing his art solely on the perceivable facts of an object. Early in his career, he reacted against painting that had extreme personal imagery, for instance Pablo Picasso, and instead embraced the abstraction of Piet Mondrian and Jean Arp, among others. Literal is the watchword of Kelly's work, for each object is like some thing found in nature, and just as in nature, Kelly wants each of his forms to have a "mysterious" quality" (Quoted in R. Axom, The Prints of Ellsworth Kelly, p. 32). Better yet, each object should embody a "voluptuous experience," (quoted in Upright, p. 9) the result of the color, contour, shape, and mass if a sculpture.
Though seemingly abstract in the extreme, Kelly has always founded his art on seen experiences, including windows, barns and shadows. Hence, Kelly's work has its roots in observable phenomena, but its final appearance is independent, existing at a great remove from the initial stimulus.
In 1959 Lawrence Alloway, the critic, noticed a phenomenon he called "Hard-Edge Painting," which he defined as "economy of form and neatness of surface with fullness of color, without continuously raising memories of earlier geometric art" (Introduction in Systemic Painting, exh. cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966, p. 14). While the term is hardly felicitous, Alloway's definition is rather apt to describe the visual quality of Kelly's art. Though Kelly predicted Minimalism in his use of monochrome, multi-panel compositions, and grid patterns, Kelly was always loath to embrace a wholly geometric approach. To call his work geometric would be an oversimplification, much as Barnett Newman despised the characterization when applied to his own painting. Kelly's work on occasion has a straight edge, but his work is never about predictable geometric forms. Indeed, it has everything to do with what is not predictable, what must, therefore, be examined closely to determine uniqueness. Kelly's art is full of visual surprises: edges that have dramatic contours or are fascinatingly uneven, colors that are subtle or are ravishing, and formal juxtapositions that are surprising.
Black Panel, 1986, is one of a long series of single color panels of irregular shape, either with three, four, or six sides. The series includes not only paintings but such works as Study for White Sculpture, 1958. Typically, Kelly persuades the viewer to look closely at the form of Black Panel, thereby determining that no two sides are the same size. This wonderfully idiosyncratic shape makes each edge of special importance and interest. Like a leaf, the viewer must study closely in order to have any opportunity of knowing the form. This unique something is colored, dare one say a "voluptuous," deep black hue.
Describing a multiple panel work, Kelly said of one section: "I wanted an edge for each color. I wanted it to begin and to end so that it had its own uniqueness. Like everything has its own uniqueness in this room where we are, in the world, every object/form has its edges. If you copy it, you depict it, and that I knew: I didn't want to depict.I don't want to have my own personal mark interfere with the work. I want it to be a fragment of the world, to compete with other fragments.to the point where people might say: 'Well, there's nothing there!'" (A. Hindry, "Conversation with Ellsworth Kelly, Artstudio, 24, Spring 1992, p. 24). This is the central dogma of twentieth-century abstraction, and it is expressed in Black Panel, an object that is NOTHING, that is, a very large, ineffable something, existing in the world to please, delight, and possibly awe those who come upon it. Indeed, at this scale, the work speaks of a grand vision.
Blue Curve with White Panel, 1990, speaks to another side of Kelly's oeuvre. If Black Panel is like a one-syllable punch of visual sound, Blue Curve has the more complicated effect of a diptych. Here is a beautifully composed equipoise between two, seemingly contradictory sections: a fan-shaped blue panel with a rectangular white one. Kelly's work is especially rich with series' of two-panel works, each series holding many variations on a theme. It is as if Kelly establishes a visual sonnet form, with a specific program that must be followed through every variation. In this series, known as Curves with Panels, 1989-90, curved forms join at a diagonal edge with straightedge panels. As is so often the case in Kelly's work, the edge is a highly charged point of confluence, setting off a vibrant relationship between the sections. Roberta Bernstein points out the juxtaposition is between a "dynamic, three-sided form with a more stable, four-sided one." (R. Bernstein, "Ellsworth Kelly's Multipanel Paintings," in D. Waldman, ed., Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, exh. cat), New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p. 50). But with the conjunction, Kelly reverses expectations, making the fan-shaped form frontal and stable, whereas the rectangle assumes a more dynamic life than might be expected.
Bernstein has stated that Kelly's multi-panel works are among his most important works of recent years. (Ibid., p. 49). Their delicate yet precise instability produces a never-ceasing dynamism, not unlike the effect in a painting by Mondrian. Indeed, comparison between Kelly and Mondrian is apt on a number of levels, both artists having created remarkable, fifty-year careers of astonishing variety and achievement, Mondrian through the first half of the century and Kelly in the second half of the twentieth-century and beyond.
With both Black Panel and Blue Curve with White Panel, we can observe a very important aspect of Kelly's aesthetic purpose. He wants to demonstrate that each of his paintings has the force of an object interacting with its surrounding space. That interaction is set into motion by the unusual shape or contours that bring the eye to the edge between the painted object and the wall. At that point, an exchange takes place, with the painting leaping beyond any preconceived notion of a frame, and the exterior world, in the guise of the wall, completing the work of art. Such is the literal quality of a painting by Kelly that it is but a short distance to his sculptural output.
Kelly once explained that the Rocker series began in 1959, during a casual moment of conversation with his neighbor Agnes Martin, when they both lived in a building on Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan. Kelly, playing with the paper top from a take-out coffee cup, cut and folded a section of the round object. Then he put it on a table and rocked it to and fro. Shortly thereafter, he fabricated a large aluminum sculpture based on that paper top, and titled it Pony. (P. Sims and E. R. Pulitzer, Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982, p. 75). Thus began the Rocker series, which is Kelly's best known and most widely exhibited group of sculptures. Following differently configured versions of 1963 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), and 1968 (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), Kelly made three models for much larger versions of this signature series in 1982, one of which is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. Number 2 of that series became the model for the present work, which was intended for the outdoors.
The Rocker series was the first of Kelly's sculptures that could be seen in the round, thus expanding on his aesthetics of the literalness of art. Indeed, following the lead of his friend and sometimes mentor Alexander Calder, the series has a playful quality in its hobbyhorse association, and has a kinetic aspect in its movable nature. Between the different versions of the Rockers, as with his other series, there is tremendous variation. The first ones were painted, but the more recent Rockers, such as this one, are colored with their natural material. Some stand upright while others are more low-lying. In all, the Rockers represent, in part, a meditation of the theme of the circle, first announced by the utterly mundane appearance of a take out, coffee cup top.