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  • Provenance

    Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
    Collection of Carter Burden, New York
    Sale: Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., New York, Contemporary Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, May 15 and 16, 1980, lot 529
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, An Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly, October 7 – November 7, 1968, (cover illustration)
    New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1969 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, December 16, 1969 – February 1, 1970

  • Literature

    J. Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, 1971, pl. 205 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    In my painting, the painting is the subject rather than the subject, the painting. ELLSWORTH KELLY

    (Ellsworth Kelly quoted in Ellsworth Kelly: Paintings and Sculptures: 1963-1979, Amsterdam, 1979, p. 34)

    Ellsworth Kelly’s work has given him unique status in the canon of great American Twentieth Century painters; his glorification of both shape and pure color has revolutionized the meaning of figurative expression. Kelly’s daring canvases aim for our most instinctual familiarities, as they simultaneously live apart from and celebrate the visual richness of the world around us. Though a pointed exception itself, the present lot, Green Black, 1968, came to life during the beginning of Kelly’s forays into two-panel pieces, as he sought to widen both his and the viewer’s chromatic vocabulary through establishing relationships between shape and color. Though most of Kelly’s uses of multiple colors resulted in respective panels for each hue, the present lot defies this trend; its chromatic split is a result of painterly precision rather than an assemblage of canvases. In allowing them to share a panel, Kelly eliminates the distance between the two colors. Besides his virtuosic display of technical brilliance, here Kelly tests us in the art of mental relaxation, as he dares the viewer to release our tendency to see an optical illusion.

    Often characterized as “hard-edge painting”—a critical term used to describe blocks of juxtaposed color—Kelly’s hand has always found its inspiration from environmental visual sources. However, even though Green Black, 1968 may trace its structural and chromatic ancestry to the natural world, Kelly’s pieces are wholly non-representational. It is in this elimination of meaning that Kelly yields his most profound power: “to objectify color and form and to distill its essence from the world of reality, drawing on human emotion, imagination, and spirit”(D. Waldman. Ellsworth Kelly, New York, 1996, p. 38). The resultant work is an impersonal observation, and one that is deeply sensuous. Consequently, Kelly’s painting prompts an equally emotional response from the viewer. It is a technique not dissimilar from the work of Mark Rothko—they both seize the visceral capacity of pure color as a trigger for human sentiment.

    Green Black, 1968, composed of a single canvas on which two shapes are painted, rises before us into standing, vertical orient ation. Pitch black claims the left and top portions of the painting, lying atop the blazing lucid green of a subordinate parallelogram. The areas of Kelly’s pitch seem to be two adjoining parallelograms, resulting in a directional arrow that lends the piece a motion to the upper left. Kelly’s dividing line displays intimidating precision. Such a beautiful divide along with such dramatically distinct coloring gives the two shapes independence in relation to one another; there looms no threat of color over-lap or interplay. Kelly’s choice to render the two colors upon the same canvas allows his oils to share an edge rather than to have two. Upon closer inspection, the surface allows no hint at its formation, as Kelly’s brushstroke displays the pinnacle of its subtlety. Were we to observe Kelly’s work without the interference of our intellect, we would observe a tranquil chromatic friendship, one that suggests a mutual dependence, as if the dominant black and the more reserved green rely upon each other to exist. This, bolstered by the color’s shared border, gives the painting a quality of seamless union.

    As we fill in the intellectual blanks of Kelly’s color structure, the two shapes take on the visual characteristics of a two-dimensional cube. But visually, the dwarfed green and massive black lead us to question the dimensions of this cube: were it rendered three-dimensionally, would the figure’s unequal sides be warped to accommodate the curious lengths of its edges? Since Green Black, 1968 exists only in a two-dimensional space, there is no way of resolving this question.

    Kelly’s suggestion cues us in to the fact that the concept of illusion contradicts the artist’s artistic objectives. He aims to produce a pre-Euclidean version of the world, to subtract all the modern notions of geometry and intellectual process that inhibit our emotive response. In achieving this, he presents the shapes and saturations familiar to us all. Kelly himself has testified that his art is not meant to be an end in itself, but to intensify our awareness of the world around the art. Therefore, in Green Black, 1968, it is not deceitful illusion that Kelly is after, but the adventure of exploring reality: “Bending and flattening, as Kelly uses them, are not intended to set up illusionistic conceits but to engage the viewer is a dialogue with the work, to make it a participatory experience involving discovery”(Goossen, E.C. Ellsworth Kelly, New York, 1973, p. 87).

    And, thus, Ellsworth Kelly presents his challenge: as we gaze at the singlepaneled, multi-colored canvas of the present lot, he welcomes us to defy our own automatic intellect in favor of a purely sensuous reaction. As he has stated in the past, Kelly’s art is his and our filtered reality, not the stuff of false appearance and deception. In Green Black, 1968, the dueling forces of sumptuous bichromatics and provocative structure suggests a unique demand: mental repose. And, in achieving it, that type of cool observation could make no one feel square.

    “It’s not so much about nature, it’s about investigating. I always said you should put your mind to rest and just look. And don’t try to put meaning into
    it.” (Ellsworth Kelly quoted in Ellsworth Kelly: Thumbing Through the Folder—A Dialogue on Art and Architecture with Hans Ulrich Obrist, New York, 2010, p. 6)

  • Artist Biography

    Ellsworth Kelly

    American • 1923 - 2015

    Acting as a vital contributor to the Abstract movement, Ellsworth Kelly focused on color and composition. Becoming inspired by ornithology and the bold coloring of birds, Kelly used a two or three pigment color palette — painted flatly and geometrically — on his canvases. While living in Paris, the artist used Monet's late works as a base for experimenting with expressionism and serial work

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Green Black

oil on canvas
95 x 68 in. (241.3 x 172.7 cm)
Initialed and dated “EK 68” on the reverse. Also signed and dated “Kelly 1968” on the stretcher.

$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for $2,210,500

Contemporary Art Part I

7 November 2011
New York