Looking at the overall shape of this work, what might first come to mind is an intrinsic relationship to pure geometry. However, like many of the artist's works from this period, this study was inspired by empirical observation: one day in 1951, while crossing the Seine River in Paris, Kelly noticed the black shadow of a bridge's arch and its reflection on the water. In 1955, after his return to New York, Kelly executed a wooden relief repeating this shape but making it larger. In this version, which is also in the Museum's collection, he painted the relief white, distancing the motif from its original source and creating an autonomous pictorial statement.
Gallery label from Focus: Ellsworth Kelly, 2007
Like most of Kelly's collages from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Study for White Plaque: Bridge Arch and Reflection was inspired by a real-life experience: the view of the Pont de La Tournelle in Paris arching over the Seine. The darker strip of glossy black paper stretched horizontally across the center indicates the area in deepest shadow; it also separates the bridge's shaded tunnel, or negative space, from its murky reflection.
Executed in France, where Kelly lived from 1948 to 1954, works such as this study provided the genesis for the ensuing development of his art. With their uniquely stylized motifs, these works established the basis for the singular abstract vocabulary that defines his later work.
In 1954–55, after his return to New York, Kelly executed a larger wood relief identical to this image. He painted this work a luminous white, thus distancing the motif from its original source and creating an autonomous pictorial statement. The wood relief is considered a major breakthrough toward his mature emblematic style and was an early forerunner of what came to be known as the shaped canvas.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 221