Ellsworth Kelly made Sculpture for a Large Wall for the lobby of the new Transportation Building in Philadelphia in 1957, commissioned by the building’s architect, Vincent Kling. This was an effervescent period for public art in American cities: modernist office towers and plazas provided rich opportunities for large-scale works by contemporary artists.
Kelly, who was 34 in 1957, had been working in New York City for just a few years, following a productive stay in France from 1949 to 1954. In Paris, Kelly had developed the abstract vocabulary of line, form, and color that continues to fuel his art to the present day. He also had begun to dream of reaching beyond painting’s usual scale to make works that functioned at the intersection of art and architecture.
The Philadelphia commission permitted the realization of this ambition. Spanning more than 65 feet, Sculpture for a Large Wall features 104 shaped panels suspended between double rows of horizontal rods that allow each panel to be positioned either upright or tilted at an angle. The designated site was high above the lobby’s elevator banks, facing an outdoor plaza through the building’s glass facade. Kelly’s relief occupied this site for four decades, but in 1998, with the building slated for reconstruction and its contents in jeopardy, the sculpture had to be removed. Later that year, Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder acquired the work and donated it to The Museum of Modern Art, where it joined a collection of more than 250 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints by the artist.