Yellow Curve

A Centennial Celebration of Color and Form

“Ellsworth Kelly: Shapes and Colors, 1949-2015” presents the largest retrospective of the artist’s work in almost three decades. With over 100 pieces on display at the Fondation Louis Vuitton until September 9, this exhibition offers a comprehensive insight into the Kelly’s mastery of form and color, prompting critical reflection on his enduring influence on contemporary art.

The name Ellsworth Kelly brings to my mind his famous canvases with yellow, red, and green, and his profound belief that “paintings shouldn’t be just decorations of the walls; they themselves should be walls”. Last year, commemorating what would have been Ellsworth Kelly’s 100th birthday, the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, USA, home to the largest collection of Kelly’s works, dedicated an exhibition solely to his oeuvre. Last month, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris opened an exhibition celebrating both its 10th anniversary and its role as the last commissioner of the Foundation’s Auditorium to Kelly, serving as a final testament to the artist’s seamless blend of art and architecture.

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Ellsworth Kelly, “The Auditorium”, Fondation Louis Vuitton, photo: Tatiana Rosenstein

Beginning

Ellsworth Kelly, born in 1923 in Newburgh, New York, and raised in Oradell, New Jersey, had a childhood shaped by his father’s work as an insurance agent and his mother’s background as a former school teacher. As a child, Kelly found solace in studying illustrations of birds by John James Audubon during his sick days at home. His parents didn’t support his artistic aspirations. In 1943, Kelly joined a camouflage battalion, where he learned coloration techniques that would influence his future art. Upon returning, he took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights and attended the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts with government funds. However, he found the curriculum unfulfilling as it focused on sketching monochrome nudes rather than allowing him to explore his desire to paint like Kandinsky. 

It’s sometimes hard to believe that well-known artists didn’t start out on a grand scale. There was a known incident when Kelly was studying in Boston; he painted Self-Portrait with Bugle (1947), depicting himself barefoot in a gloomy attic. When he arrived in Paris in 1948 on a grant after serving in the army and showed this picture to Fernand Léger, the latter said: “This young man should return to America and blow his horn there.”

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Ellsworth Kelly “Window of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris” (1949),
photo: Tatiana Rosenstein

The first two galleries of the exhibition focus on Kelly’s early 1950s period in France and his return to the United States in 1954. During his six years in France, he crafted a style that defied categorization, drawing inspiration from his surroundings rather than adhering to established artistic systems. While frequenting Parisian cafes, he became fascinated by windows, not for the view they offered, but for their shape and proportions, frames and glass. Impressed by this, he created Window of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris (1949), depicting a distinctive tonal quality, blurring the line between picture and object. Also on display at the Fondation, is what is often referred to as Kelly’s first and only Abstract Expressionist painting, created after a visit to Claude Monet’s residence in Giverny in 1952. The piece features a stunning mottled green surface reminiscent of Monet’s work. 

His debut exhibition was held at the Galerie Arnaud in Paris in 1951, but Parisian life posed challenges. After several years in the capital, Kelly’s French remained poor. At the exhibition he sold only one painting and in 1953 he was evicted from his studio. In New York, abstract expressionism had already seen better days, and Kelly had hoped for a warm reception. But his colorful works clashed with the prevailing taste among his peers and the awaited recognition failed to appear. 

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Ellsworth Kelly “Gate” (1959), photo: Tatiana Rosenstein

From painting to sculpture

In the mid-1960s, Kelly’s work demonstrated a move towards minimalism. He simplifies forms and restricts his palette, seamlessly blending painting and sculpture. Kelly’s creation of Gate (1959) stemmed from cutting an x-shape from an envelope and folding it. Despite being one of his earliest sculptures, Gate remains closely tied to his paintings, reflecting his aim to break free from the confines of the wall and ground. The form exists independently in space and on the floor, yet it maintains the two-dimensionality characteristic of painting, devoid of the mass typical of traditional sculpture. 

The Paris exhibition notably lacks coverage of the artist’s work from the 1970s and 1980s, a period when he moved to upstate New York and explored two-color, single-panel paintings alongside sculptures. Nevertheless, some of the similar works from later years offer insight into his creative evolution during this period.

As you move from one gallery to another, you’ll notice a separate room featuring just one piece – Yellow Curve (1990), originally conceived for the Portikus art center in Frankfurt. Here, Kelly explores the connection between his work and the environment it shares with visitors in a unique way: his painting is not on the wall but on the floor. The rich yellow of the curved section radiates into the space. Kelly always viewed his paintings as unbounded by the limits of the canvas, expressing, “I want my pieces to be fluid, somehow, to relate to all the elements around them. I don’t want them to be an end in themselves”.

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View with the Ellsworth Kelly’s “Yellow curve”
© Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Fondation Louis Vuitton / Saywho / Antoine Ayka Lux 

Personal Vision and Commissioned Work

In the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s Auditorium, a collaboration between Kelly’s work, Frank Gehry’s architecture and Olaf Eliasson’s Grotto produced a stunning ensemble. Featuring a stage curtain and five monochrome panels, the installation seamlessly merges shapes, space, and colors into a cohesive artistic statement. The stage curtain, Spectrum VIII (2014), revisits Kelly’s Spectrum series, showcasing twelve vibrant colors framed by yellow, creating a luminous effect that draws the viewer’s eye. The monochrome panels, in shades of blue, green, red, and yellow, complement the room’s architecture. Kelly’s project highlights his multifaceted relationship with architecture and his belief that art transcends the boundaries of the canvas. 

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View with Kelly’s “The Auditorium” and “Spectrum”, photo: Tatiana Rosenstein

In the final gallery, the exhibition presents Kelly’s latest works alongside drawings, photographs of buildings and landscapes, and collages, offering insights into his creative process. Also featured are painted postcards sent to friends, and simplified drawings of fruit and vegetables, reflecting Kelly’s penchant for abstraction. 

A pioneer of hard-edge painting (a term coined by art critic Jules Langsner), Kelly often referred to his creations as ‘object paintings’. In contrast to the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism, his work with its crisp edges and flat, evenly colored fields – the epitome of pure abstraction – interacts with the surrounding space. Kelly’s goal is to provide viewers with a carefully crafted framework, inviting them to interact beyond the chaos of everyday life. He once said: “I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living. This is an illusion, of course. Canvas rots. Paint changes color. But you keep trying to freeze the world as if you could make it last forever. ” And for some time, he certainly succeeded.

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