Kelly's Orange Blue 1
By M. Novotny
2017, Acrylic on canvas, 48" x 48"
Hebert & Bieri
1965, Oil on canvas, 60 × 54 1/10 in
152.4 × 137.5 cm
"To hell with pictures - they should be the wall - even better - on the outside wall - of large buildings. Or stood up outside as billboards or a kind of modern "icon". We must make art like the Egyptians, the Chinese and the African and the Island primitives - with their relation to life. It should meet the eye direct" -Ellsworth Kelly, 'Letter to John Cage', September 4, 1950.
Completed in 1965, the year of Ellsworth Kelly's first solo show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, Orange Blue I is a dynamic and imposing work comprised solely of two vibrant and radiantly contrasting colors and forms. Almost square in its format with a single orange ovoid set at its center, the painting is a powerful conjunction of simple geometric form and flat plane color asserting itself undeniably as a vivid and startling immaterial presence on the wall.
It is one of the finest examples of Kelly's works from the mid-1960s when his unique brand of geometric abstraction was erroneously perceived as having been anticipatory of much of the Minimalist and Op art developments that were also taking place during this period. A powerful example of the deceptive simplicity of Kelly's art and his extraordinary ability to reconstruct forms from nature into clear, simple and surprisingly evocative abstractions, usually drawn from personal memories of things and places he had observed, Orange Blue I, like most of Kelly's works, is a unique, resonant, but ultimately indefinable entity.
Kelly has famously said: "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). Reflective of this belief, his paintings are distilled, purified and concretized abstractions of nature rooted in places and things seen, and to the point where, as paintings, they function solely through a conjunction of form, scale, shape and flat monochrome color, each combining to transmit a specific but indefinable aura or presence.
Functioning on the borderlines between painting and sculpture, his works are essentially indefinable objects because they simultaneously assert themselves as both tangible, physical entities of a certain scale and dimension and, at the same time, as vibrant but wholly immaterial colorful presences - ones that articulate, energize and interact in a unique and fascinating way with the blank empty space of the walls on which they are set. "Instead of making a picture that was an interpretation of a thing seen, or a picture of invented content" Kelly once noted to himself, his aim with his pictures was to find an object and "present" it as itself, autonomous and alone. They were to be "objects, unsigned, anonymous" (E. Kelly, "Notes from 1969," ibid., p. 63)
With its flat orange painted ovoid set inside the traditionally rectangular format of a picture and seemingly pushing at the boundaries of its material limits--the edges of the canvas--as if it were radiating and expanding from within the picture plane, Orange Blue I is one of several mature paintings from this period to make deliberate use of the strange contrast between curved and rectangular form. First influenced in this respect by the Matisse cut-outs he had seen in Paris in the 1950s and by his own collage works from this period, Kelly, in the early 1960s, explored the potential of curved forms and shaped canvases to articulate what Mark Rosenthal has described as a "unique body" for a mass of color. (M. Rosenthal, "Experiencing Presence," ibid., p. 63)
Insisting that "everything has presence, that all spatial arrangements are pregnant with a kind of life substance," Kelly saw in the shaped canvas and the curved monochrome color form a particularly effective way of bestowing color with what he has referred to as its own autonomous and concrete reality" (E. Kelly, "Interview with Mark Rosenthal, December 29, 1995," ibid., p. 64). In the shaped canvases, and other paintings like Orange Blue I, with a pronounced curved form set directly into contrast with their rectangular base, Kelly was further emphasizing the relationship of the canvas to the wall on which it resides in a deliberately unorthodox and surprising way. This was part of a conscious and deliberate technique aimed at actively encouraging the painting to find what Kelly has described as 'its own space' in a way that always demands the "freedom and separateness" of the picture itself (E. Kelly, quoted in Ellsworth Kelly, exh. cat., Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, 1984, n.p.).