Orange Relief with Green 1991 is a very large, asymmetrical abstract painting that is made up of two canvases – one in bright orange laid over another that is painted bright green. The green panel is a rectangular shape in landscape format that is more than two metres in width. The orange panel is semicircular and hangs downwards from the upper left corner of the green rectangle, with its curved side positioned to the right. Its straight edge, which is also around two metres in length, runs down the left side of the green canvas and extends into the space below it. Both canvases are painted in an even manner all over, including their edges, producing a very smooth surface. The work is not framed or glazed.
This painting was made by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly in 1991 in Spencertown, New York, where Kelly lived and worked from 1970 onwards. The artist first joined two canvas panels together in his work Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris 1949, and two-panel works became especially prevalent in his practice in the mid-1960s and early 1970s (see, for instance, Black Square with Blue 1970, Tate T07106). Kelly returned to a sustained exploration of the two-panel format in the late 1980s, first creating paintings combining curved and straight-edged panels with the series Panels with Curves 1989 and Curves with Panels 1989–90. Orange Relief with Green can be seen within the context of a series of canvas reliefs involving a variety of differently shaped panels that Kelly made in the early 1990s, the first of which was Orange Red Relief (For Delphine Seyrig) 1990 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid). In 1991 the artist said, ‘I am beginning to feel that all my paintings are really reliefs … They are like objects on the wall’ (quoted in ‘Interview: Ellsworth Kelly Talks with Paul Cumming’, Drawing, vol.13, no.3, September–October 1991, p.58).
The combination of panels in Orange Relief with Green may be seen as challenging the traditional figure–ground arrangement in painting in which a subject is set against and made visible by means of its contrast with a background, as well as drawing attention to the relationship between curved and angular forms employed in the work. In 1994 the art historian Yve-Alain Bois highlighted the ‘quiet co-ordination’ of Orange Relief with Green (Yve-Alain Bois, ‘The Summons’, in Anthony d’Offay Gallery 1994, p.48), while in 1996 the art historian Roberta Bernstein claimed that, ‘As a result of the layering of one panel on top of another, the forms in Kelly’s reliefs appear to press into or penetrate one another’ (Roberta Bernstein, ‘Ellsworth Kelly’s Multipanel Paintings’, in Waldman 1996, p.50).
Born in New York State in 1923, Kelly lived in France from 1948 to 1954 where he began to create abstract paintings and collages, often featuring grids and inspired by architecture, that were influenced by the work of the Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) and the French surrealist Jean Arp (1886–1966). Kelly’s first purely abstract relief was Méditerranée 1952 (Tate L02465), and after moving to Manhattan in New York in 1954 he began to make painted aluminium sculptures such as Gate 1959 (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis). With its curved edges, Yellow Piece 1966 constituted Kelly’s first irregularly shaped canvas, while Blue Red 1966, which consists of two joined panels in acrylic paint, one positioned against the wall and the other laid on the floor, was his first work to involve the gallery architecture in such a fashion, and functions as both a painting and a sculpture. Having left Manhattan for Spencertown in 1970, Kelly completed The Chatham Series in 1972, fourteen paintings each consisting of two canvases in different colours joined in an inverted ‘L’ shape. His work in the mid-1970s also included a series of fan-shaped wall sculptures such as White Curve 1974 (Tate T03072). Since then, he has created several large-scale outdoor sculptures in steel and bronze, such as The Barcelona Sculpture at the General Moragues Plaza 1987, as well as extending his exploration of colour and form in painting. Kelly’s practice has additionally involved making photographs, lithographs, postcard collages, and pencil and ink drawings, some with figurative imagery reflecting his long-held interest in plants.
With its emphasis on clean lines, block colours and abstract forms, Orange Relief with Green can be considered in relation to the development of hard-edge painting, a term first used by the critics Jules Langsner and Peter Selz in relation to Californian painters in 1959 that is often associated with the work of American modernist artists such as Sam Gilliam (born 1933) and Frank Stella (born 1936).
Spencertown: Recent Paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1994, p.48, reproduced p.48.
Diane Waldman (ed.), Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1996, pp.49–50, reproduced no.95.
Ellsworth Kelly in St Ives, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, St Ives 2007, reproduced pp.21, 23, 43.
Supported by Christie’s.