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exhibition: Ellsworth Kelly: Small Paintings, 1955-63

dates: 3 February 2005 - 23 April 2005

Ellsworth Kelly: Small Paintings, 1955-63 at Peter Freeman, Inc., focuses on the small-scaled works that Kelly made during this crucial early time of his career. The exceptional group of paintings in the exhibition chronicle the development of Kelly's visual language as no grouping from a later period can; some works show most clearly Kelly's initial honed interest in the figure/ground relationship, others are evidence of his reassertion of the optical and sentient role of color, and all are indicative of the driving force behind Kelly's visual language–the total integration of color, form, and scale.

While studying in Paris from 1948-1954, Kelly was informed by several movements (Neo Plasticism, Geometric Abstraction and Dadaism among them), and so the work he produced during this time is difficult to label as his visual language was often variant from work to work. When Kelly left Paris for New York in 1954, his work began to take on a different and specific look, a look that was the very beginnings of the visual language we recognize today to be only his. And though some of the formal ideas Kelly was working with in Paris–that his forms had direct sources in nature, that color was not logically tied to the subject–remained with his earlier New York pieces, it was only during these formative years in New York that he used a small scale to explore the limits of his developing vocabulary.

The role of scale in these works allowed Kelly to focus in even further on the forms in his paintings, reducing their compositional elements to the point of non-referentiality. Had the scale been larger the reference to the real-life object would have been totally lost, but the intimate scale makes the forms seem more biomorphic and real. And because the forms, and thus the entire canvas, were immediately legible to the eye, the scale also provided a perfect format for Kelly's exploration of the figure/ground relationship.

Black and White (Study for Bar) (1955), and Wall Study l (1956), are the clearest examples of Kelly's play with the figure/ground relationship in which the referential sources for both paintings–a leg bent at the knee and an architectural element, respectively–are all but clear. The white and black palette allows for a push-and-pull of figure and ground that gives the works proper dimension, while the protrusion and recession of the forms as distinguished by the palette never allow the black or white forms to be seen at the same time (think of EH Gombrich's duck-rabbit figure). Kelly re-worked this particular idea in most paintings to follow; if he was not playing with multiple alterations of the same forms and the variant roles of color, then his later turn to shaped panels was the final dissolution of the figure/ground relationship as the figure was the canvas and the wall itself became the ground.

The more Kelly turned his focus away from this question of spatial hierarchy the more he turned toward the full optical potential of color to divide his canvases. Kelly's reassertion of color at this time in his career is visceral and sentient, and several works in the exhibition affirm this, in particular Mask (1958), Red Blue Yellow (1963), and Blue Green Red (1963). The tri-partide arrangements in these three canvases resonate and create a three-dimensional space that is not tied to a direct reference in the seen world. This crucial moment in Kelly's thinking when color, form and scale are all separated out as independent elements provides the foundation for Kelly's mature visual language: the subsequent total integration by him of these three separate elements into a single, coherent, intuited work.