The art world woke up to some grim news today: Ellsworth Kelly, the great American abstract painter, had died at 92 after a long and successful career that made an impression on the international art world as bright and bold as his most famous canvases.
Several of Kelly's works reside in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which exhibited 14 of his geometric color-block paintings in 1972, and acquired this one:
The piece, called "Chatham #11, Blue/Yellow" and painted in 1971, is part of a series of two-paneled paintings, each separately painted and joined at right angles, according to a catalog entry by Robert Evren. It is an excellent example of Kelly's reduction of some complex or quotidian shape or form - "the curve of a hill, the space enclosed by a window frame, or the pattern of light and shadow cast by buildings and objects," as Evren wrote - into pure structure and color.
"As a painter, he navigated between abstraction and representation with impeccable grace and subtly both in his interpretation of actual subject matter and color," said Albright-Knox Chief Curator Emeritus Douglas Dreishpoon. "He always looked to nature. Nature was always the basis for his ideas, but it was never exclusively about natural forms."
The inspiration for this painting seems unlikely at first and then, upon consideration, just right. It is the Nike of Samothrace from the Louvre, the 2nd century BC marble that is one of the best known sculptures in the world:
The juxtaposition is Kelly exemplified, a thorough digestion of a fascination (which in this case happens to be art-historical) into an essential piece of painted architecture through his own trademark language. As Holland Cotter wrote Dec. 27 in his excellent obituary in the New York Times, Kelly would characterize the painting not as a representation of the statue, but as a "fragmented perception" of it.
"The famous Greek statue of a tall Victory figure with her wings thrust out, parallel to the ground below, has qualities akin to Kelly's own work, but his transformation of the source is complete," Evren wrote. "His procedure is to 'erase all 'meaning' of the thing seen' in order to allow the formal qualities of a visual discovery to come to the fore. This process is one that Kelly associates with honesty, a quality to be maintained by a strict fidelity to one's perception of those things presented to the senses."
It's a fidelity that fueled Kelly's extraordinary art career, and one held to his final days.
In remembering Kelly, the Albright-Knox also shared a couple of other pieces from its collection of his works:
Remembering Ellsworth Kelly with the artist's “New York, NY,” 1957, & “Blue, Yellow and Red,” 1968 (Collection AKAG) pic.twitter.com/5DPiRvuUVX
— Albright-Knox (@AlbrightKnox) December 28, 2015