Kenneth Noland: Stripes/Plaids/
On ViewPace Gallery
March 17–April 29, 2023
“Art is a life of small moves,” the composer Morton Feldman said in a 1978 interview. An astute observer of the visual arts, Feldman stressed the discipline it takes to follow the subtleties in an artist’s work as it changes over time: “Unless one has the kind of tolerance to watch [these] small moves, you've had it after five or ten years.”
The 1970s was a period of consolidation for Kenneth Noland. The group research approach to abstract painting that characterized the previous decade dissolved, and the “Three American Painters” of critic Michael Fried’s epochal 1965 exhibition began charting divergent paths. Jules Olitski reintroduced painterliness and texture, and Frank Stella pulled painting into three dimensions with a constructivist, sculptural approach. Noland, already the most austere of the three, bore down with greater concentration on the fundamental elements of his painting: shape, line, and surface.
Stripes/Plaids/Shapes demonstrates the tremendous variety of sensory and somatic effects Noland could wrest from these economical means. With its spacious hanging, each of the twelve paintings is presented in its specificity, to be taken on its own terms. This is crucial, as even within the three given categories, the works vary wildly in intention and effect. For example, in Untitled (1972), a plaid pattern is interwoven through glowing zones of flaxen yellow and peach. Gradations in luminosity correspond with both the accumulation of paint and the saturation of color, creating a sensation of light that is as much tactile as it is visual. The slow tempo of these changes contrasts with that of the plaid elements, which dash down the canvas in a grid of flickering color that pulses at those points where the lines overlap. An altogether different array of qualities is activated by the scaffolding of Interface (1973), where shallow space is constructed by the woven intersections of lines varied by their thickness and translucence.
The geometric clarity of Noland’s paintings belies the ever-increasing importance of paint handling and surface texture to his post-1960s work, qualities emphatically asserted in the pale plum surface of Egyptian Cryptic (1978), which is unfixed in space by the application of cloudy, effervescent pigment stained into the canvas and then sanded or buffed to a velvety finish. Noland once said in an interview that he wanted his pictures to exist as sensation and not as objects. Modulations of speed, weight, density, and direction were among his concerns in his shaped canvases of the latter half of the seventies, in which color chords are pushed to the edges. Despite sharing this general pictorial grammar, each of the shaped paintings telegraphs a distinct range of phenomena. While the rotary movement of Glean (1977), with its lattice-like surface texture, recalls Noland’s circles of the decade previous, the warped space of Occurant (1979) seems to recede from the viewer. In these paintings, Noland utilized the edge of the canvas (like Olitski had in his mid-sixties sprays) as a “drawn” element. In Occurant, the asymmetrical diagonal edges are as active as the linear drawing within the picture: both amplify the sensation of speed.
Noland returned to certain deceptively simple pictorial formats—circles, chevrons, stripes—throughout his career, utilizing them as established means to a variety of ends. The exhibition is bookended by stripe paintings, one from the 1960s and two from the final decade of the artist’s career. At just under eight feet in length, Early Flight (1969) is a relatively small example of Noland’s classic horizontal stripe paintings. While the large stripe paintings elicit a side-to-side scanning of the surface, Early Flight, with its pairs of close-valued stripes situated between repeating bands of bubblegum pink, reads vertically, as different sets of stripes perpetually pulse forward and receding in a shifting space. The painting’s perceptual orientation helps contextualize later stripes, like 9 PMand AM (both 2003), in which Noland employs the horizontal format in a counterintuitive manner. In the latter two paintings, the surface seems to tilt at an oblique angle away from the viewer. The space in AM, as in Monet’s waterlilies, recedes in an upward direction.
If I’ve concentrated upon the material qualities and perceptual effects of the paintings in Stripes/Plaids/Shapes, it is because the included works, despite their clean categorization, are disparate in their mode of address and impact. There are, of course, general aspects common to Noland’s paintings. They summon energy. They serve a therapeutic function, vivifying and sharpening the acuity of the viewer’s senses. Noland felt that color could impress itself optically as a tactile sensation, and he consistently capitalized on the potential of sensory concordance. The transit of phenomena among the senses was his preoccupation. But to register these feelings requires some concentration: they emerge from the artist’s meticulous effort, careful calibrations, small moves.