I have often found that to gain a deeper understanding of a work of art, it helps to know its historical context - perhaps even the background of the artist who made it. Consider first how artists' lives - their experiences, what they love and what they fear - manifest in the art they create. When applying this investigation to the life and work of Ellsworth Kelly, and to The Modern's Three Panels: Red, Dark Blue, Dark Green (1986) and Curved Red on Blue (1963), this method gave me better insight into their power.
As a supplement to these pieces, the three most eye-opening elements of his life are a childhood spent bird watching, a young adulthood in Paris spent shape watching, and finally an art movement-free isolation in which to develop his own style. His early experiences bird watching first trained his eye to the intricacies of shape and color in nature, an ability that opened him to a world of inspiration in Paris later in life. There he kept numerous sketchbooks of his findings, expanding upon a method of seeing he had begun as a child. Finally, these six years he spent in Paris kept him away from the strong influence of the Abstract Expressionists.
Ellsworth Kelly was born in New York in 1923, and spent much of his childhood bird watching and collecting beautifully colored and patterned beetles. I find these experiences are evident in his artwork. They seem an exercise in viewing – a play on the shapes and colors we see every day, a shifting of viewpoints, and a rearranging of negative and positive space. As a child, he trained himself through bird watching to see the world in new ways, a perspective that seems evident in his paintings like Curved Red on Blue.
Soon after World War II, Kelly was able to study at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts with support from the G.I. Bill. There he spent his time travelling, studying, and, most importantly, observing the world around him. He kept sketchbooks full of his observations, from shadows cast on windowsills and wrought iron fences to blocks of color in signs and letters. In 1949, the influence of fragmented shapes as they appear in memory or in shadow drew his work into abstraction. The Modern’s Three Panels, although spanning three separate canvases, could easily reference forms of shadows or the negative space around ordinary objects. Kelly’s lifetime of observation gave him a new and different vantage point from which to view the world.
His time in Paris is extremely important for another reason. The 1950’s in the United States was a time of intense artistic development, led by powerful art critic Clement Greenberg. By living in France during this time, Kelly escaped the debate from which the Abstract Expressionists were born. Rather, he was able to experiment in a way that led to his own unique style of abstraction, one that rejected both Greenberg’s rules and the rigidity of any specific movement.
In 1954, when Kelly moved back to New York, he brought with him a reliance on observation, memory, and a lifetime of experience drawing inspiration from what he saw around him. His paintings, such as Three Panels, appear to me like remembered fragments of the world, like shapes stripped of their context. By continuing the paint to the very edges of the canvas, he turns Three Panels into one quick glimpse of nature, rather than isolated paintings on stark museum walls. As Kelly himself has said, “as we move, looking at hundreds of different things … we see many different kinds of shapes. … In my paintings, I’m not inventing; my ideas come from constantly investigating how things look.”