Chatham X: Black Red is a quintessential example of Ellsworth Kelly's eloquent canvases which combine line, edge, plane and color with a breathtaking and sophisticated economy of means that redefined Abstraction in the last century. In paintings such as Chatham X: Black Red, color and form are equally paramount in Kelly's geometric abstract art, and the use of multi-panel construction heightens and elaborates the tenuous and critical balance of these co-equivalent properties of plastic art. Kelly's flat monochromatic shapes articulate a single field of color which in turn becomes form, abandoning the traditional use of color as representational. No longer depicting objects, Kelly's color unites figure and ground into one entity – each panel is a single shape wedded to a monochromatic field. In his exploration of multi-panel formats, begun in 1968, Kelly adds to the optical and spatial possibilities in his oeuvre. Previously his visual and formal vocabulary, sourced from observations of shapes, shadows and visual ephemera, was arrayed within the frame of one canvas: triangles, rectangles, arcs and curves vied for compositional weight within a single plane. Now, in the Chatham series, Kelly employs two colors in tonal opposition as tools of pictorial and spatial allusion. In a plenitude of proportional color and conceptual elaboration, the Chathams are a testament to the depth and range of Kelly's aesthetic invention and consequently, four paintings now reside in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C.
Contemplating Chatham X: Black Red, the viewer is led into two spaces: the eye can luxuriate either in the purity of the vibrating red or in the velvety blackness, but it is in their simultaneous realization that the colors serve the artist's ultimate purpose. The asymmetrical juxtaposition of black with red throws the viewer's perception of depth into question, as the two planes of color can present many different visual relationships – the two can seem to conjoin sensually one with the other or they can alternately recede into or push forth from the wall as support for the canvas.
Kelly is an artist whose aesthetic practice defies art history by refusing to be linked to one particular movement or wedded to a specific precedent. His concepts transcend traditional ideas of categorization and explore the very nature of architecture and art from the ancients to the Moderns and his contemporaries. Throughout his career, Kelly has been linked (albeit incorrectly) to Hard Edge, Minimalist, Op-art and Color Field genres. Although he may share some of the same artistic tendencies of reductive form and color, Kelly's approach to painting is singular. More pertinent perhaps is Kelly's study of European artists of the early 20th century such as Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Jean Arp. However where these artists were concerned with the idea of creating space and form with color and composition, Kelly strikes a different path. Color, plane and shape, independent of form, provide their own reality – Kelly's own reality – in a visual vocabulary that has remained fresh, exciting and intriguing to the viewer for over five decades. As Diane Waldman noted in the text for the 1996 retrospective of his work in New York, "Kelly combines his interest in ancient art and architecture with early twentieth-century Modernism to create a body of work that is a seamless blend of past and present, almost transcending time." (Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, 1996, p. 11).
While living in Paris in the 1950s, Kelly met some of the artists who figured in the heady years of Modernist innovation, including Mondrian. He became friendly with Jean Arp who introduced Kelly to the practice of collage, a momentously important application for Kelly for the access it afforded in compositional and visual invention. However, Kelly would come to use this technique for unique reasons and a very different outcome from the Modernist vein. In a sense, Kelly's multi-panel paintings such as Chatham X: Black Red are a literal, anti-illusionist collage that depicts space through the division of monochromatic surfaces, reduced to an eloquent pairing of two. When the series was exhibited together at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1972, the fourteen canvases were a visual totality and a full elaboration of the means by which Kelly can articulate a redefinition of the figure/ground relationship between the canvas as object and the wall as support.
Chatham X: Black Red is an extraordinary work of chromatic power, tonal richness and spatial genius. Aptly named for the site of Kelly's studio in Chatham, New York, where he moved in 1970, the 14 paintings of the series emerged from Kelly's acute observations of his immediate environs. Photography and collage were the testing grounds for Kelly's distillation of the essential geometries to be found in the nature and architecture that surrounded him in the New York countryside. For the Chatham paintings, Kelly also worked out the details of proportion on paper as described by Roberta Bernstein. "[In] pencil drawings, he established the exact measurements for each variation in a series, a necessary step for ordering the stretchers but also a way for him to refine the proportions using a process that is intuitive rather than mathematical or systemic." (Ibid., p. 48). Each of the Chatham paintings consist of the same L-shaped format reminiscent of a post and lintel architectural trope that also appears in Kelly's previous series of paintings titled Bar. Within this schema of mathematical rationalism, Kelly plays with the idea of color and shape implying an optical 'weight' by joining panels of monochromatic splendor in differing sizes and proportions. In each of the paintings, a horizontal rectangle is placed atop a vertical which aligns with the left side of its companion panel. Each Chatham is a variant of this basic format, but is altered in its choice of panel color and dimension.
Within the series, Chatham X: Black Red possesses a refined presence and dominant authority. Its visual 'punch' derives from the opposing duality of its shapes that thoroughly complement and abet the opposition of the palette. In his multi-panel paintings of dual colors, Kelly makes careful choices in the calibration of the mass of his color forms and in the weight of the individual color values. The larger panel is often conveyed in the lighter weight color, allowing for a balance in the composition. In Chatham X; Black Red, Kelly accomplishes this careful balance of ratios. The larger black upper panel could effectively overwhelm the smaller red panel as it extends far to the right in a distance greater than the width of the red support. Yet the balance of this work does not tip rightward as the robust color value of the red rectangle holds the viewer's eye with its lush and forceful optical weight. Conversely, the visual verve of the red pigment does not steal our attention away from the overall composition since it occupies a smaller proportion. In turn, the voided space of the wall that is defined by the angle of the two components serves as a visual and contrapuntal support to the balance as well. Thus, despite the spatial illusions of Chatham X: Black Red, Kelly ultimately returns the viewer's attention to the painting's flatness and its identity as an object mounted on the wall as support. The two joined canvases resolutely describe a flattened space, whose boundaries are defined only by the wall they inhabit.
Chatham X: Black Red and its sister paintings are a culmination of many of Kelly's concepts and oeuvre up to the early 1970s. The artist has addressed the canvas as a structured object, not a field of painterly gesture, with receding and advancing colors and shifting perceptions of space. With his self-imposed minimal artistic vocabulary, Kelly has succeeded in experimenting with perception without diluting what he considered to be the fundamental factors of artistic representation – color and form. Even with only two colors and two geometrically pure rectangles, Chatham X: Black Red succeeds in drawing the viewer in to question the very nature of what painting is or can be. Kelly has once again defined space without dominating it and has beautifully created his own reality of color.
Oil on canvas
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Gallery, The Chatham Series: Paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, July - August 1972
Zurich, Bruno Bischofberger Gallery, Homage to Leo Castelli, June 1982
New York, Joseph Helman Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly Masterworks - Two-Panel Paintings, November 1998 (with an introduction by Diane Waldman), cat. no. 1
108 x 95 3/4 in. 274.3 x 243.2 cm.
Hilton Kramer, "Color Lures the Eye to Kelly's Paintings," The New York Times, July 26, 1972, p. 22
Exh. Cat., Düsseldorf, Museum Kunst Palast, Die Sammlung Ingrid und Willi Kemp: Fokus Farbe: informel - konkret - figurativ, 2001, p. 314 (text reference)
The Artist (EK461)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# EK-3)
Galerie Alfred Schmela, Düsseldorf (acquired in 1972)
Teheran Museum, Iran
Blum Helman Gallery, New York
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Raymond Learsey, Connecticut
Christie's, London, December 7, 1977, Lot 233
Gordon Locksley, Minneapolis
Grant Selwyn Fine Art, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1999