Black Square with Blue is an abstract painting comprising two large, conjoined monochrome canvases – one black square and one bright blue rectangle. The black panel is located in the top-left of the composition and the blue canvas is attached to the right side of the black square, positioned so that the upper edge of the blue panel starts roughly halfway down the black canvas’s length. While the two elements appear to be approximately the same height, the black canvas is wider, forming a square shape, while the blue panel is thinner, forming a rectangle. The join between the two parts is clearly visible when viewed at close range. Both panels have a matt finish and feature very little tonal variation, and they are also largely devoid of surface incident, although some brush marks are visible on the blue canvas.
This work was made by the American painter Ellsworth Kelly in 1970, shortly after he had moved to Spencertown in New York and established a new studio in a nearby town called Chatham. Both panels consist of pieces of canvas stretched over and stapled onto expandable wooden stretchers. They have been primed with a titanium pigment that runs across all parts of the canvases, including their edges. Each has an opaque surface consisting of oil paint, with most areas featuring two layers, although some only feature one.
Kelly has made a large number of paintings comprising multiple conjoined panels since the early 1950s (see, for instance, Orange Red 1959, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Orange Relief with Green 1991, Tate T07478). Black Square with Blue is one of nineteen two-panel paintings he made between 1970 and 1971, during his first year at the Chatham studio (see Ann Temkin, ‘The Chatham Series’, in Museum of Modern Art 2013, p.20; for another work in this group, see Chatham IV: Red Blue 1971, Museum of Modern Art, New York). All of these paintings feature two canvases in two different colours that show very little tonal variation or surface incident. Their titles always include a reference to at least one of three elements: the number of panels included, the colours used and the shapes of the canvases. In the case of this painting, the title cites the shape of the top-left canvas and the colours of both panels.
According to the curator Ann Temkin, ‘Kelly’s multipanel paintings share one preeminently important quality; they reject the painterly elaboration of figure and ground. These incident-free surfaces overturn the traditional assumption that a painting will provide “background” and “foreground” elements through which the eye can travel’ (Temkin 2013, p.20). She goes on to argue that in doing so, these paintings incorporate the gallery environment into their spatial composition: ‘As many critics have observed, a painting by Kelly is all “figure” while the wall on which it hangs performs the role of the “ground”’ (Temkin 2013, p.20). The art historian Roberta Bernstein has also suggested that the lack of figure–ground relationship in these works is one of many devices Kelly has employed across the majority of his works from the late 1940s onwards to avoid any hint of illusionistic space (Roberta Bernstein, ‘Ellsworth Kelly’s Multipanel Paintings’, in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1997, p.40).
In 1969 Kelly discussed his use of largely undifferentiated surfaces, stating that ‘I am less interested in marks on the panels than the “presence” of the panels themselves’, an effect that is clearly achieved in Black Square with Blue (Ellsworth Kelly, ‘Notes From 1969’, in Ellsworth Kelly, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1980, p.32). Another possible reason for the lack of surface incident in this painting is suggested by Kelly’s rejection of ‘painterliness’ in the same 1969 statement. Here he wrote that he wanted to avoid cultivating any ‘personal handwriting’ in his practice and instead sought to make ‘anonymous’-seeming paintings (Kelly 1980, pp.30, 34). Kelly went on to praise the idea that artworks are ‘more important than the artist’s personality’, perhaps suggesting a concern that any emphasis on the painter’s own involvement might detract from viewers’ attention to the objects themselves (Kelly 1980, p.32).
Temkin has described Black Square with Blue as ‘two side-by-side rectangles that meet at neither top nor bottom’, observing that this composition produces a ‘skewed effect’ that lends a sense of dynamic imbalance to the painting’s stable, geometric shapes (Temkin 2013, p.16). This idea resonates with curator Mark Rosenthal’s claim that when Kelly’s paintings include simple geometric forms, these common, regular shapes are organised into contrasting compositions, lending them an ‘idiosyncratic’ appearance. Rosenthal has presented this as one of many techniques that Kelly employs to confound initial assumptions about the forms, colours and dimensions in his works, encouraging viewers to investigate these objects more closely. (Mark Rosenthal, ‘Experiencing Presence’, in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1997, p.63.)
Ellsworth Kelly, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1997, p.48, reproduced no.58.
Susan Daniel-McElroy, Sara Hughes, Alex Lambley and others, Ellsworth Kelly, London 2007, pp.29–30, reproduced pp.9, 21, 23.
Ellsworth Kelly: Chatham Series, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2013, p.16, reproduced p.17.
Supported by Christie’s.