Yellow Curve is an oil painting on canvas by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly. Painted in bright canary yellow, the work has three sides, two of which have straight edges and one of which is curved. Running down the right hand side of the canvas in a gentle slope, this curve is so subtle as to barely offset the sharp angularity of the triangular panel. Despite its geometric appearance, Yellow Curve has no equal sides and no equal angles, forming a completely irregular shape.
Yellow Curve is one of a series of Curves made by Kelly in the 1990s, all of which are singular, large-scale, monochrome painted canvases of various shapes, each featuring one curved side. Kelly had previously used curves in works such as Red Curve IV 1973 (Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble) and Black Curve VII 1976 (private collection), separating areas of colour on the canvas with a gently curving line. The Curves of the 1990s refined the language of these earlier paintings by removing the shape from the confines of the canvas’s rectangular frame altogether. In Yellow Curve the canvas becomes the form, rather than merely representing it, exemplifying Kelly’s desire ‘to free shape from its ground’ and playing on the basic formal oppositions of symmetry and asymmetry, colour and shape, and figure and ground (quoted in Grunenberg 2006, p.31). As the critic Carter Ratcliff has observed, in its pared back simplicity the work ‘faces outward, towards us, not to deliver a message but to display an exemplary quality: independence’ (Ratcliff in Waldman 1996, p.57).
Mounted on the white gallery wall, Yellow Curve’s autonomous nature is both emphasised and challenged by the architecture of the space it inhabits. Although bright and distinct, its form brings into focus the angles, curves and planes of the environment around it, so that its surroundings become integral to the reading of the work. As Ratcliff has stated:
Unenclosed by the usual rectangle, Kelly’s monochromes do not establish an impermeable barrier between pictorial space and the space of the gallery. Instead of resting within their own borders, they sweep across the wall, achieving ‘separateness’ from the room but also engaging it. For these Curves are figures. Without the wall, they would have no ground.
(Ratcliff in Waldman 1996, p.59.)
The work’s relationship to architecture and space is not incidental. As with his other works, the shape of Kelly’s Curves is extracted from the external world, inspired by scenes, objects, shadows and openings which the artist distilled into abstract forms, removing any trace of their original source by purging them of detail and painting them in saturated colour. Kelly was insistent that his works were a reflection of the world as he saw it, stating in 1991: ‘I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract’ (quoted in Bernstein 1996, p.40). Yellow Curve – shown in 2006 as part of the exhibition Ellsworth Kelly in St Ives, where its deceptively complicated angularity played off of the unusual structure of the Tate St Ives building – is intended to remind us of this alternative way of seeing the world. Indeed, it reaffirms that, as Susan Daniel-McElroy has suggested, ‘the act of seeing itself’ is the central subject of Kelly’s work (Daniel-McElroy 2006, p.8).
Diane Waldman (ed.), Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1996.
Susan Daniel-McElroy, ‘Introduction’, in Susan Daniel-McElroy, Sara Hughes, Alex Lambley and others, Ellsworth Kelly, London 2007, pp.6–8.
Christoph Grunenberg, ‘Modern Icons: The Contradictions of Ellsworth Kelly’, in Susan Daniel-McElroy, Sara Hughes, Alex Lambley and others, Ellsworth Kelly, London 2007, pp.16–34.