Méditerranée is a wall mounted relief by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly. It is made from a series of identically shaped rectangular wooden panels, which are painted a variety of colours. Nine panels are mounted onto a wooden support to form a grid, which is three panels high by three panels wide. Mounted on top of three of the panels are a further three thinner panels of wood – painted cream, red and blue – which project out from the surface to varying degrees. While the cream and red hover about a centimetre away from the underlying panels on the far left and far right hand side of the middle row respectively, the blue protrudes only a few millimetres above the middle panel of the bottom row. Seen from afar the relief effect of Méditerranée is almost imperceptible, only becoming evident when the viewer approaches the work up close or views it from the side, when the gaps between the panels and the subtle shadows created by them are revealed. Other intricacies are also only noticeable at close range: for example, one of the black panels has a gloss finish, while another is matte, and a series of small, painted nails line the edge of some of the panels.
Kelly composed Méditerranée by arranging the panels of colour by chance. He began experimenting with this process upon arriving in Paris from America in 1949, in an attempt to demonstrate that ‘any colour goes with any other colour’ and ‘to learn about colour relationships.’ (Kelly in Grunenberg and Kelly 2009, p.66.) The colours in Kelly’s work of this period were drawn from ‘chance encounters, such as shadows on a staircase, the reflections of the sun on the River Seine and the exposed sides of buildings that showed the abstract black patterns where the chimneys had been.’ (Kelly in Grunenberg and Kelly 2009, p.66.) The colours of Méditerranée, however, were inspired by the time Kelly spent working and travelling in the south of France between 1949 and 1952. The blue hues reflect the Mediterranean Sea, while the black, white, red and yellow panels are suggestive of the architecture, fashions and pulsating heat of the south. Condensing these elements into a modular pattern of colour, Kelly was not concerned with the literal representation of a place, but rather in conveying the sensations it evoked. As Christoph Grunenberg has stated of Méditerranée, ‘Geometric abstraction here allows the communication of an impression that transcends pure visual perception’, while Kelly’s choice of title contextualises the work for the viewer, imbuing it with associations of Mediterranean landscape and culture. (Grunenberg 2007, p.25.)
Having previously created flat-surfaced panel and grid paintings, such as Colors for a Large Wall 1951 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance I to VIII 1951 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia), Méditerranée was the first of Kelly’s works to use painted panels in relief and it signalled a turning point in his practice. With Méditerranée Kelly rejected drawing as a means of conveying shape and space, instead using the physical edges of the joined panels to create form and layering them to create depth. Talking about his use of relief in 2009 Kelly pointed to his desire to avoid the illusory nature of representational painting, stating ‘I no longer wanted to depict space, but to make a work that existed in literal space.’ (Kelly in Grunenberg and Kelly 2009, p.67.) This was a task that he continued to pursue throughout his career, with works such as Orange Red Relief 1959 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) and White Relief with Green 1994 (private collection) employing the same technique of positioning one coloured canvas or panel on top of another. As Grunenberg has noted: ‘From Méditerranée onwards, multipanel paintings and reliefs are a constant in Kelly’s work as he meticulously exercises the unexpected dramatic potentials of this pictorial convention.’ (Grunenberg 2007, p.29.) His earliest ‘painting object’, Méditerranée provides an origin point for Kelly’s later relief works as well as an important example of his life-long preoccupation with a form of abstraction that both melds and subverts, the languages of painting and sculpture (Grunenberg and Kelly 2009, p.67).
Roberta Bernstein, ‘Ellsworth Kelly’s Multipanel Paintings’, in Diane Waldman (ed.), Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1996, pp.40–55.
Christoph Grunenberg, ‘Modern Icons: The Contradictions of Ellsworth Kelly’, in Ellsworth Kelly, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, St Ives 2007, pp.16–34.
Christoph Grunenberg and Ellsworth Kelly, ‘Sixty Years at Full Intensity’, Tate Etc., no.16, Summer 2009, pp.65–7, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/sixty-years-full-intensity, accessed 3 June 2016.