A seminal sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923) is newly installed in the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Entitled Curve I (1973), the work is one of the first outdoor sculptures Kelly made after moving to the New York countryside in the 1970s, marking the beginning of an especially prolific period in his career. Originating from the image of a flattened paper cup, Curve I is the result of the artist’s abstracting vision—simplifying an object that has captured his interest into a formalized geometric composition of carefully calibrated size and contours, both curved and straight. Kelly states, “The most pleasurable thing in the world, for me, is to see something, and then to translate how I see it.” This sculpture is a product of the artist’s translation, reflecting the purity, flatness, and refined proportions that have come to characterize the artist’s work.
Hovering just above the ground, Curve I is one of the few sculptures Kelly created to be displayed horizontally. Similar to Claes Oldenburg’s nearby Giant Three-Way Plug (Cube Tap) (1970), it is made of weathering steel. The surface of this industrial material oxidizes over time, developing a rust-red patina that has invested Curve I with subtlety and richness.
“Ellsworth Kelly is surely one of the great artists of our time and Philadelphia is fortunate to have his work increasingly well-represented in both public and private collections,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Both Curve I and the recently unveiled Barnes Totem at the Barnes Foundation are extraordinary examples of his work in the medium of sculpture.”
Since 2006, the Museum’s Modern and Contemporary wing has featured a gallery dedicated to Ellsworth Kelly’s work, highlighting a formative period in Kelly’s practice dating between 1949 and 1956 as the young artist worked first in Paris and later in New York. The installation of Curve I in the Museum’s Sculpture Garden serves as a counterpart to this gallery installation of Kelly’s early paintings (Gallery 175). The dialogue between these two defining moments in the artist’s trajectory provides an opportunity to engage with the work of an artist whose influential practice spans mediums, dimension, and format.
Carlos Basualdo, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art, notes, "The installation of Curve I in the Sculpture Garden wonderfully complements the room dedicated to Ellsworth Kelly in our Modern and Contemporary galleries, and provides our audiences with the unique possibility of looking at and learning about two fundamentally important aspects of this extraordinary artist's work."
Curator: Carlos Basualdo, The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art and Amanda Sroka, Exhibition Assistant, Modern and Contemporary Art
About the Artist
Known for his thoughtful and elegant treatment of space, color and form, Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) is a leading figure in contemporary art, crafting a practice that inextricably links the mediums of drawing, painting and sculpture.
Currently, Kelly lives and works in Spencertown, New York, not far from Newburgh where he was born. In 1948, following his military service in World War II, Kelly moved to France where he developed a nuanced artistic style in response to the European avant-garde. Renouncing the gestural qualities of expressionism, Kelly sought to achieve an abstraction rooted in observation, reducing those objects and images on which he focused his attention to their most essential elements. Inspired by his close friendship with artist Jean (Hans) Arp, the young Ellsworth Kelly began experimenting with the simplification of natural forms, most notably in the medium of painted relief. Influenced by the Parisian cityscape and his European contemporaries, Kelly incorporated into these early constructions everyday objects such as string and scrap paper, while maintaining the grid as an underlying structure. His endeavors in Paris led the artist to develop a growing emphasis on the formal qualities of his compositions, forging an avant-garde sensibility with an increasingly simplified palette and form.
Upon returning to the United States in 1954, Kelly moved to New York where he was greeted by the converging sensibilities of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Evading classification, Kelly chose to immerse himself in abstraction, creating bold canvases of hand- drawn shapes, each painted in a different color. Leading to the artist’s extraordinary color spectrums, such canvases came to define Kelly’s characteristic vocabulary of monochrome tones and geometric shapes. After moving to upstate New York in the 1970s, Kelly began to translate the lexicon of his asymmetrical reliefs into the curved, bending and totemic structures characterizing this later period.
Throughout his career, Kelly has worked within the mediums of painting, sculpture, drawing and print-making to actively engage abstraction with dynamic shapes and rich color. Separating Kelly from the art historical terms of Minimalism and Color-Field painting, with which he is often associated, the artist’s practice prompts a sensory interaction with the physical space surrounding the artwork, while maintaining a sustained engagement with line, color, and form.
The Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden
The Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden occupies a one-acre site near the Museum’s West entrance, flanked by Kelly Drive and the rolling waters of the Schuylkill River. Open to the public during Museum hours, the terraced Garden extends the institution’s vast galleries to the outdoors, encouraging an engaged dialogue with the city and Fairmount Park. The Garden’s outdoor gallery spaces currently feature works by Scott Burton, Gordon Gund, Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenburg and Thomas Schütte, as well as a series of sculptures by Isamu Noguchi. Newly installed is a monumental sculpture in three parts by Austrian artist Franz West. Entitled Lips, from 2012, this installation serves as the late artist’s last site-specific commission.