Expansive and dynamic, Ellsworth Kelly's Red Curve V is a beam of pure, brilliant color. It was painted in 1982, some thirty years into his career, and in this way is a culmination of three decades of artistic innovation and stylistic development. Similar to his most iconic works from the 1960s, the painting is characterized by a geometric form flooded with vital color--in this case, something of an asymmetrical fan saturated from corner to corner, which radiates with a warm hue made up of an unwavering blend of red, orange and crimson tones. However, unlike his earlier works, the form is not a shape painted within a picture plane, but is the picture plane itself--a freestanding form whose boundaries are not lines, but the edges of the canvas.
After years of exploring the ambiguities that exist among size, shape and color, with Red Curve V, Kelly has achieved something of a breakthrough: he has successfully extracted the foreground from the background of the painting and allowed it to exist in its own right. By freeing the form from the confines of a rectangular canvas and the boundaries of 90-degree angles, he grants it autonomy in its expression of size, shape and color. By assigning a non-rectangular shape to the canvas, Kelly forces us to identify it as a medium, rather than as a window through which we view an image, a scene or even the action of artistic expression.
In this autonomous role, the freestanding form achieves what merely painted shapes cannot: three-dimensionality. By abandoning its rectangular canvas and proclaiming itself a stand-alone figure, the form takes on a certain sculptural element. In other words, its background is not the picture plane, but the wall; its existence is not on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, but in the environment in which it hangs. It is an attempt by Kelly to bridge the gap between painting and sculpture, to bestow sculptural qualities to a two-dimensional painting and pictorial qualities to a three-dimensional object.
No longer restricted to the boundaries of a rectangular canvas, 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, this orange-red hue seemingly ceases to be paint applied to a canvas, but, rather, is 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.
It is clear Kelly is thinking about dimension outside the canon of traditional art: "...All the things I've done I would like to see much larger. I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long-to hang on walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures-they should be the wall" (E. Kelly, Letter to John Cage, September 4, 1950). This inclination emerged early in his career, evidenced by sketches in which he represented three-dimensional objects--a stack of chairs, for example--with a sparse, flat arrangement of lines. Later, as this proclivity matured, he progressed from lines to surfaces, incorporating the notion of volume into these abstract representations. The relationship between the artwork and the object that influenced it became less vague; the visual connection, closer. When we look at works like Red Curve V, the broad arch of a bridge is easily evoked. This association is not without justification: we know that Kelly has been profoundly inspired by bridges and the space that exists beneath them throughout his career.
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, Henri Matisse, Jean Arp and his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, to name a few-as well as key environmental factors. 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 allowed Kelly a self-discovery outside the realm of Abstract Expressionism, which was the predominant movement of the era. Eventually, it permitted him to reach to the level of pure abstraction possessed in later works like Red Curve V.
It was in the early 1950s, after personal interactions with Arp and Taeuber, Kelly began exploring the Surrealist practice of allowing the "laws of chance" to govern his artwork. He produced various collages and drawings in spiritual alignment with Surrealism--including collaborations on his very own Cadavres Exquis--that reflected the emphatic role that the unconscious plays in creating art. While he never fully dedicated himself to the movement, the methods he developed while immersed in it stayed with him throughout his career. Random chance eventually gave way to intuitive choice: the shape, size and color of Kelly's canvases are not so much elected through deliberation as they are determined by intuition. The vibrant tone of the present work was neither predetermined, nor an entirely arbitrary decision; it was a gut instinct that Kelly allowed to manifest into Red Curve V.