The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

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FEB 2010 Issue

Kenneth Noland (1924-2010)

I’ve followed other artists gratefully and I hope I’ve also followed my own path....sometimes along side other artists. I’ve also been willing to share any help that I could give to any other artist. I love art and I love the life of art and I only wish that the real life of art could affect social change in a good way and that the invasion of commercialism in art and the invasion of entertainment into all areas of our lives hadn’t brought some of the worst features of our culture into the realm of art

—Kenneth Noland
“The Bennington Years” symposium, University of Hartford, March, 1988

I heard of Kenneth Noland’s death through a text message from my friend and fellow painter Don Voisine: Kenneth Noland RIP. This isn’t the sort of thing artists kid about, not Don’s idea of a practical joke; still, I clung to a small shred of doubt. Moments later, I googled Don’s exact words and found that Noland had indeed passed away. Well, I figured, at least he made it to his 85th year. Not a bad run, not a bad run at all. But it’s difficult to fathom: one of the last great colorists of the 20th century is no more.

A week has passed, and that text message remains on my cell phone. My last link, I suppose, to a lifelong hero.

I never met Kenneth Noland, but as a teenaged artist in the Washington D.C. area during the 1970s, I couldn’t help but be heavily influenced by him and the rest of the Color Field painters. Their work surrounded me, in the museums and the art galleries, even on the asphalt of the streets (okay, that was in Philly, but I saw it on TV). I watched these artists, who’d ascended the heights in my infancy, tower mightily above, only to be knocked back down years later, but in my eyes they were never anything less than Great.

When I arrived in New York City, winter of ’79, at the ripe old age of 21, I felt like the last surviving admirer of what I’d come to know as post-painterly abstraction. It seemed the world had moved on, and nobody had bothered to tell me. None of the young artists I met found Kenneth Noland the least bit interesting, let alone a master painter. I didn’t even mention the Washington Color School to my newly acquired colleagues. “What the hell is that, some kind of kindergarten?” would have been their likely response.

But several decades and plenty of stupid trends have passed. Post and Neo no longer apply as current art world terms. A place has been made for almost everything, and everyone, under the sun. Kenneth Noland has claimed his corner fairly, squarely.

Noland was born on April 10, 1924, in Asheville, North Carolina to an amateur musician mother and a father who’d studied art. In his early teens, he visited Washington D.C. with his father and was inspired by the astonishing holdings of the National Gallery, most notably their Impressionist collection. Shortly thereafter, he began his pursuit of painting.

In 1942, Noland was conscripted. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force. After WWII, he and his brothers, Harry and Neil, enrolled in Black Mountain College. Among Kenneth’s teachers were Ilya Bolotowsky, John Cage, and Peter Grippe. He also spent a semester under the tutelage of Josef Albers. After two years at Black Mountain, Kenneth departed for Paris, where he continued his studies with Ossip Zadkine. In spring of ’49, he had his first solo exhibition at Galerie Creuze.

By 1950 Noland was back in the United States and living in Washington D.C., where he taught at the now defunct Institute of Contemporary Art and at Catholic University. He returned to Black Mountain College that year to attend summer courses. There he met his first critical champion, Clement Greenberg, who exposed him to recent developments in Abstract Expressionism.

Noland continued teaching in D.C., adding night classes at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts to his busy schedule. Morris Louis was also working there as an instructor. Inevitably, they became good friends.

On April 3rd, 1953, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Clement Greenburg visited the New York studio of 24-year-old Helen Frankenthaler. They saw her recent painting “Mountains and Sea,” which expanded on the implications suggested by Pollock’s 1951 black enamel works. Energized and inspired, Noland and Louis returned to D.C., where they began months of experimentation with unprimed canvas and paint thinned to the consistency of watercolor. Often, the two artists worked together on the same canvas. Unfortunately, none of their four-handed paintings have survived.

What has remained are Louis’ first “veils” and “florals” and Noland’s “proto–circles,” living proof of unprecedented artistic breakthroughs in the late 1950s. Noland soon arrived at his definitive concentric circle configuration. Fifteen of these works were shown at French and Co. in 1959. With this exhibition, Noland’s reputation was firmly established.

His “circles” are often incorrectly described as targets. They are, in actuality, purely abstract, intuitive color extrapolations. Noland had little interest, at least at this time, in the geometry of the circle, but he managed to explore most of its other aspects. The catalogue for a 1994 exhibit at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston entitled The Circle Paintings, 1956–1963 mentioned 175 known circle paintings, the smallest being only 13 inches square, the largest, 117.

At the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1964, Noland and Louis were two of eight artists representing the United States. This biennial introduced the world at large to Pop Art, with Robert Rauschenberg bringing home the Golden Lion. It took another two years for Color Field painting to fully surface worldwide. In the 33rd Venice Biennale, works by Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler were included.

Back in the U.S., Noland and Louis joined forces with Gene Davis, Paul Reed, and two of Noland’s C.U. students, Thomas Downing and Howard Mehring, to create the Washington Color School, named for an exhibition, The Washington Color Painters, which took place at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1965. Many of these artists and newer adherents such as Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, Anne Truitt, and Leon Berkowitz, exhibited their work at the Jefferson Place Gallery, cementing the strong identification with Washington as the home of color painting.

Noland pushed on like a juggernaut with a solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1965. A few years later, he was so commercially successful that Piri Halasz wrote in the April 18th, 1969 issue of TIME:

His latest work, marked by a softer, subtler spectrum of colors, and currently on view at Manhattan’s Lawrence Rubin Gallery, is so much in demand that the gallery is charging up to $28,500 per painting. The artist himself and his svelte wife Stephanie can afford to divide their time between a farm in Vermont and Manhattan, where he recently bought and is renovating a flophouse on the Bowery. (It should be noted that in 1969 $28,500 had about the same buying power as $168,776 does in 2010.)

In spite of this enormous success, Noland maintained doubts about his own work, frequently destroying paintings that didn’t meet his lofty standards, stopping short with at least one series that was critically acclaimed. An example of this can be found in the catalogue text for Noland’s Jewish Museum show. Michael Fried remarks:

…after having executed no more than a few large-scale asymmetrical chevron paintings, Noland gave up the solution—one which a lesser painter would have spent a lifetime repeating, if he could have made his way to it in the first place—because it was no longer true to his feelings…

One can only surmise what Noland really felt about his asymmetrical chevrons. They seem to have been made in response to Louis’s “Unfurleds,” of which, by 1961, there were over 120 variations. Noland’s chevrons are large not only dimensionally but also experientially. They are ambitious paintings, a throwing down of the gauntlet at the feet of his elders: Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and his buddy Louis.

The work “Bend Sinister” (1964), found in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum, clocks in at a respectable 92 1/2' × 162 1/2'. “Bend Sinister” is an off-axis, five color chevron consisting of two different values of blue: a chilly cobalt and a lighter cerulean, stacked on top of a lemon yellow and bordering a warm orange. Then, in a move worthy of atonal musical composition, Noland concludes with a jump to an odd gray-green, an effect which fellow Washingtonian Gene Davis would go on to exploit to full effect.

But in the midst of these halcyon days, trouble was brewing. Consensus amongst a new critical establishment concluded that the framework constructed around painting had become unsustainable. Painting was now considered retrograde, artistically bankrupt, its principles undefendable. Color Field painting was easy prey.

Michael Fried, who had written so eloquently of Noland’s early career, abandoned the sinking ship of high modernist painting, while Rosalind Krauss launched articulate attacks on the notion on modernist criticism itself in Artforum and October magazines.

Things were looking so bleak for painters in 1969 that Joseph Kosuth, in a footnote to his landmark text “Art after Philosophy,” concluded “the conceptual level of the work of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Ron Davis, Anthony Caro, John Hoyland, Dan Christensen et al. is so dismally low, that any that is there is supplied by the critics promoting it…”

By 1974 Donald Judd was quoted as saying “It looks like painting is finished.” It would be almost 40 years before the funeral celebration came to an end. 

Nonetheless, Noland’s career proved to be unshakeable. Throughout the 70s, he exhibited at some of the world’s finest art galleries. A solo show at the Guggenheim Museum opened on April 15th, 1977.

During the 1980s, Noland ransacked the storehouse of newly available iridescent acrylic paints, extenders, textured gels, and mediums. In a move seemingly inspired by the postmodernist quotation that was very much in vogue at the time, he brought back his chevron and diamond motifs for a surprising second act. Noland pressed forward into the 90s with a renewed sense of urgency, as he squeegeed and pushed paint relentlessly across the modularity of his “door” and “flair” series of shapes.

By the turn of the century, Noland had returned to his most recognizable emblem: the concentric circle, this time, on a much smaller scale. He instilled his signature motif with mysterious mandala-like spiritual and cosmological references. The 60-year-plus career of this great American color painter ended with the artist absorbed in deep meditation on the nature of paint as a carrier of transcendental light.

At the time of his passing, Noland’s final exhibition was still on view at Leslie Feely Fine Art. The show consisted of twelve eccentrically shaped paintings from the early 80s that were selected by the artist from his personal collection. The orientation of these works, derogatorily referred to as the “surfboard” series, appears to be up for grabs. Two of the paintings were previously reproduced in a major publication as horizontals, while at Lesley Feeley, the works, except for one, were installed vertically, at the artist’s request, giving them the look of contorted full-length figure paintings, an allusion Noland must have perversely enjoyed. Completed 30 years ago, these pieces seem surprisingly fresh and of the moment. They are sleek shards, informational bits of some unknown technological stuff, floating, nay, surfing in slow motion CGI animation, self-critically probing the edges of painting’s existence.


Mark Dagley

Dagley is a mid-career abstract painters working with a geometric vocabulary.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

All Issues