Black Abstraction

Ralph Coburn (American, 1923–2018)


Overall: 50.2 x 61.3 cm (19 3/4 x 24 1/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

Not On View





In the winter of 1949, after a summer of travel around France with Ellsworth Kelly, Coburn settled alone in Sanary, on the Mediterranean coast in Provence, a place to which he would return on three more trips abroad [for Kelly’s work see 1987.419; see also 2008.39.1-35 for more on Coburn]. Spurred on by his study of Surrealism and other avant-garde styles while traveling, the artist entered a period of great experimentation.
According to Coburn, the inspiration for “Black Abstraction” came when he wanted to create a sculpture or a relief made out of canvas. He cut five ovoid shapes out of the stretched canvas and then painted it black. On top of the black (and slightly off-center) he added an oblong form in white. Coburn hoped that “Black Abstraction” would be hung against a white wall, so that the painted white shape would engage in visual play with the wall seen through the cutouts. The result is an elegant and spare composition that moves beyond strictly two-dimensional design to incorporate space outside the physical canvas.
Other artists, including Kelly and surrealist Hans (Jean) Arp, whom Coburn admired and would meet in February 1950, had made reliefs out of wood and other materials, but not canvas. Although these works were abstract, they were closer to traditional sculpture than Coburn’s canvas. Coburn felt that “Black Abstraction” was the closest he ever came to sculpture, but he never repeated the experiment, instead turning his energies to the exploration of abstraction in collage and painting [2008.40.1-12; 2008.39.1-35].
“Black Abstraction” was the first work by Coburn to enter the Museum’s collection, given by his friend, Ellsworth Kelly.
Karen Quinn


The artist; to Ellsworth Kelly, 2002; to MFA, 2003, gift of Ellsworth Kelly.

Credit Line

Gift of Ellsworth Kelly


Reproduced with permission.