Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)
Property from the Krasnow Family Collection
Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

Brooklyn Bridge III

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)
Brooklyn Bridge III
signed with the artist’s initials and titled ‘EK BROOKLYN BRIDGE’ (on the reverse); numbered and dated ‘#173 1958’ (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
30 1/8 x 13 in. (76.5 x 33 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
Galerie Maeght, Paris
René Tassin de Montaigu, Paris, 1958
Peter Cochrane, London
Anon. sale; Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 17 May 1979, lot 342
Blum Helman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1980
E.C. Goossen, “Ellsworth Kelly,” Derrier le Miroir, no. 110, October 1958, p. 16, no. 12.
Indiana, Kelly, Martin, Rosenquist, Youngerman at Coenties Slip, exh. cat., New York, Pace Gallery, 1993, p. 9.
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Ellsworth Kelly, October-November 1958, p. 16, no. 12.
New York, Brooklyn Museum, The Great East River Bridge, 1883-1983, March-June 1983, p. 119 (illustrated).


In a masterful play of positive and negative space, Ellsworth Kelly has foregrounded the massive curves that define the swerving geometries of New York’s famous Brooklyn Bridge. With an eye toward essential forms, Kelly has riveted the viewer’s gaze on the curves formed by the suspension of a line when held end to end and acted on by the forces of gravity. The massive New York and Brooklyn towers, rising over 150 feet and celebrated in paintings and photographs from their inception in 1869 through its subsequent one hundred and thirty four years, are here turned, compressed, and leveled to emphasize their catenary origin, literally marking out their hanging “chain” look made under the effect of gravity. Kelly’s curves are balanced by their foci—arched points that sweep up and terminated at the canvases left and right edges—while the sweep of the top to bottom length of “bridge” seems to continue beyond the framing edge. As Yve-Alain Bois writes, Kelly’s art is not so much about fragmentation as it is about “zooming in” and flattening, “summoning” form, as he writes, absent of substance: “It is a zooming process by which the artist appropriates some unnoticed area of the visual field. He makes a cut out of this area, evacuates it of its substance, lays it flat” (Y-A. Bois, “The Summons,” in Spencertown: Recent Paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, London and New York, 1994, p. 36). While Kelly generally looks to forms as they appear to him in between objects, this “interstitial” quality, as Bois remarks and as Kelly affirms (“It’s not so much what the work is, it’s what it isn’t”) seems paradoxically to fill space, to push the bounds of matter, of paint and canvas, and in doing so, to simulate the grandeur of the icon he depicts. (E. Kelly, in A. Hindry, “Conversation with Ellsworth Kelly,” Art Studio, Spring, 1992, p. 31).

While in general Kelly’s art derives from untraceable sources, in this case, the impetus of the work is clear. For as he has stated, in one way and another, his forms have “always been there… [They are about] something you have…seen before” (E. Kelly, Henry Geldzahler, Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings by Ellsworth Kelly, Washington and Boston, 1953-1954, n. p.). Among the signal events in nineteenth-century American history, the construction of the Great New York and Brooklyn Suspension Bridge stood as a metaphor for man’s ability to fulfill what was considered his “manifest destiny,” his divinely ordained role in unifying the vast continent through industry and technology. This unifying destiny was also carried out on a smaller scale by the construction of bridges. A symbol of man’s ability to tame and control nature, the spirit that imbued the age of technology, but also the ecstatic spirit that was its driving force, was celebrated in the following verse by Walt Whitman: “Nature and Man shall be disjoin’d and diffused no more/The true son of god shall absolutely fuse them” (W. Whitman, “Passage to India,” quoted in D. Nevins, “1869-1883-1983” in The Great East River Bridge, 1883-1983, New York, Brooklyn Museum, 1983, n.p.). Conceived in 1869 by Roebling, construction began in on 3 January 1870, accompanied by wide spread skepticism that it “could not be built,” a moniker seized on at its completion in 1883. Spanning a total of 5,989 feet, one thousand five hundred feet over the East River alone, the galvanized steel, oil-coated wire-rope suspension bridge with a combined length of over fourteen thousand miles, was conceived by John A. Roebling (1806-1869), among the finest civil engineering minds of the nineteenth century.

The curves of Brooklyn Bridge III will come to play a central role Kelly’s body of work after 1972, but their appearances as double and single forms prior to the year of the present work during 1958-1960 are singular, indeed. Living and working at the time at Coentis Slip, along with artists Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, and near neighbors Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, this artist’s haven at the lower tip of Manhattan feature unobstructed views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. Before Kelly returned to New York in 1954, he lived in France where he painted Kilometer Marker in 1949, a precursor to a direction Kelly’s work would evolve. It relates in part to Brooklyn Bridge in the sense that rather than a work of interstitial origin, one perceived solely by the artist beyond what we as viewers might have identified as a form of value, this work has its source in the real world object, depicting a marker placed at intervals of a kilometer along French countryside roads.

Kelly’s artistic mode and practice is to extract subjects from the visual environment, whether bridges or windows, and abstract them to the point that essential forms are called forth. Like Matisse’s cutouts or any of a number of sinuous curves present in the master’s works, Kelly creates an almost sculpture presence of textures and materials. With its warm central passage and dark surround reflecting darkened waters, Kelly’s Brooklyn Bridge III imbues the image with the light of a dazzling sunset landscape as it might have been viewed from the rooftops of artists’ lofts in Coentis Slip or even as homage to the monumentality as well as the history of the bridge’s various depictions. Artist Josef Stella puts his own breathtaking vision of the bridge the following way: “Seen for the first time, as a weird metallic apparition under a metallic sky, out of proportion with the winged lightness of its arch, traced for the conjunction of worlds... it impressed me as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America” (J. Stella, “The Brooklyn Bridge (A page of my life),” Transition, June 16, 1929, p. 87).

Kelly may well have wished to engage with the iconic status of the Brooklyn Bridge in a similar way. For his non-representational abstractions have always operated within the spaces between painting, relief, and sculpture, as art historian Benjamin Buchloh has stated. He will identify Kelly’s pictorial organization as spatially expansive, if not transcendent. Transcendence in the sense of a spiritually based iconography such as Joseph Stella conceived or in the sense of pictorially pushing the boundaries of delimited space as in the present work, is apparent in “the curve’s seductive sinuation, [which] promises to transcend the limited parameters of the spectator’s spatial and perceptual confinement, or at least go beyond the spectator’s peripheral vision” (Ibid.) In this sense, Kelly has brought forward into time the metaphoric sense of “Manifest Destiny” augured by the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the nineteenth century. Both works of towering achievement, Kelly’s Brooklyn Bridge III gains importance both historically and aesthetically in the manner Yve-Alain Bois has described, as an art of the “already-made,” a category that describes a work of transcription by the artist, wherein a motif that already exists in the world is remade through the artist’s imaginative visual vocabulary. (Y. A. Bois, quoted in J. Burton, “Ellsworth Kelly: Changing Parameters,” in Ellsworth Kelly Diagonal, New York, 2009, n.p.).

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