Color Panels for a Large Wall was created by Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923) in 1978 for the Central Trust Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was installed at the bank until 1992, when the building was renovated and the work was given to the Cincinnati Art Museum. The museum could not find a suitable wall for Color Panels, so they contacted the artist, and in 1996 Kelly gave the museum two paintings in exchange for the panels. The work (which represents the artist's return to color after a period of working in black and white) consists of 18 rectangular monochrome canvases, each painted a different hue—variations on each of the six primary and secondary colors, and two in black. Kelly chose and arranged the colors without any system. The original configuration consisted of two horizontal rows of nine panels on the bank's 140-foot wall. For the National Gallery of Art, the artist reconfigured the work by the artist into a grid of three rows of six panels each. Kelly prefers the Gallery’s installation of the work to the original.
Color Panels for a Large Wall was an opportunity for Kelly to explore on a large scale his long-held preoccupation with multipanel, multicolor paintings and the space in which his work is installed. In fact, two earlier works by Kelly make reference to a "large wall": Color Panels for a Large Wall from 1951, and Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1957, both in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. (Sculpture for a Large Wall was originally created for the lobby of the Transportation Building in Philadelphia's Penn Plaza.)
Color Panels for a Large Wall is able to successfully occupy or "hold" the monumental three-story wall while remaining light in appearance because it incorporates elements typical of Kelly’s work, including precise balances of shape, space, and color. Also representative of Kelly's approach is his use of multiple panels whose relationship to the wall replaces the conventional figure-ground relationships found within paintings composed of a single canvas. In this way, Kelly's work is integrated into the space of the installation—unlike most conventional framed paintings, which are understood to be self-contained and distinct from the wall.
With this installation, the Gallery enlivens the public atrium space of the East Building with a work that dates—by chance—from the year the building opened.