At the time of its production in 1951, Colors for a Large Wall was the largest painting Kelly had ever made. It brings together four strategies fundamental to modernism: the additive composition of similar elements (each square is painted separately), the use of chance (each square is arranged randomly), the idea of the readymade (each color was taken from the French craft paper Kelly used to produce the collage on which the painting is based), and the allover grid of its composition. The result is a painting in which no aspect of its appearance has been determined by the artist’s personal choices.
Gallery label from “Collection 1940s—1970s”, 2019
“I have never been interested in painterliness,” Kelly said, using “painterliness” to mean “a very personal handwriting, putting marks on a canvas.” There is no personal handwriting, nor even any marks as such, in Colors for a Large Wall, which comprises sixty-four abutting canvases, each the same size (a fraction under a foot square) and each painted a single color. Not even the colors themselves, or their position in relation to each other, could be called personal; Kelly derived them from commercial colored papers, and their sequence is arbitrary.
Kelly made Colors for a Large Wall while living in Paris, where he worked from 1948 to 1954. While there he began introducing elements of chance into his compositions, one of several strategies he deployed to create what he called “anonymous” works. Produced at the height of Abstract Expressionism, this work has that style’s mural scale, and Kelly thought deeply about the relationship of painting to architecture: he saw it as one of figure and ground, with the wall as background and the painting as a figure set upon it. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, however, Kelly resolutely suppressed the presence of painterly gesture. “I want to eliminate the ‘I made this’ from my work,” he declared.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Kelly arranged the sixty–four square panels of the grid in an arbitrary sequence, likening his method to the “the work of a bricklayer.” Using squares of commercial colored paper left over from a previous series of collages, he first made a study for Colors for a Large Wall. Then he precisely matched the hues of the papers with oil paint, and arranged the final, full–size panels in strict adherence to the paper study.
Gallery label from 2006.