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Neither to hard nor to easy -- very brilliant -- agreeable to the ear -- here and there the connoisseur may be satisfied while the general public cannot fail to enjoy them without knowing why.

-- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Kenneth Noland, Brass Sound, 1962

WERE ONE TO SUBSTITUTE "eye" for "ear," the foregoing promotional blurb by a great composer for one of his piano concertos might fairly describe the art of Kenneth Noland.

I saw that art for the first time in 1967. To a young curator raised on cubism and abstract expressionism -- and those only in reproduction -- his paintings looked very strange indeed. Never before had I encountered abstract art that was simple, direct, and beautiful yet radically new. Noland, like Mozart, is a revolutionary artist whose work has immediate appeal. As I've watched that art develop over the years, I've came to realize that its perpetual freshness belongs and contributes to the mainstream of Western painting. Noland's ability to renew his art has been one of the chief excitements offered by the art world over the past quarter century .

Many people have written well about Noland and what follows makes no claim to supplant them. I haven't written about Noland's development as a biographical narrative. Diane Waldman's catalog introduction for his retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1977 does that too accurately to bear repeating. It's impossible to to acknowledge my debt to the pioneering writers on Noland: Clement Greenberg, Kenworth Moffett, and Michael Fried. One can't help but build upon their insights.

Although what follows was written to accompany an exhibition of Noland's work organized by The Edmonton Art Gallery, it isn't a catalog. It examines Noland's art in general in relation to the art of this century as well as to Western painting since the Renaissance. Somewhere between a handbook and an essay, it's intended for the interested art lover as well as the artist and collector.


THE NONSENSE SPOUTED about content in art fills volumes. Most of it, I suspect, comes from people who want art to be something other than it is: journalism, biography, philosophy, psychology, cultural history, semantics, deconstruction, pathology: something greater in their estimation than what art does and invariably something less in fact.

The great art of the past suggests that what art does best is something else altogether, that while art can contain journalism and psychology and much else besides, its relation to them is fundamentally detached and often ironic. Art operates on a different plane. Content in art doesn't occur inside exclamation marks; nor is a great picture a front page. Content and expression are real but ineffable, even to the artist. The artist doesn't so much express himself as he makes expressive things.

Noland's painting functions on that different plane. It neither preaches nor shouts. It declares its presence with uniquely sensuous immediacy, primarily through relations of color. Color appeals directly to the feelings and Noland has discovered a way to concentrate and organize its expressive potential.

The most important thing to realize about his work is that it's art, not something "useful" or "informative." It's creative, and not, to use an academic cliché, deconstructive.


EVERY ART HAS a distinct character; each in its own way is "pure." Because its medium is language, poetry is uniquely accessible to the speakers of that language. Because the relation of musical sounds is inherently abstract and evocative, music crosses language barriers and appeals directly to feeling.

The visual arts, especially painting, are unique in their immediacy. The appreciation of paintings doesn't occur over time; we appreciate a picture in an instant. What an advantage this gives painting over music and literature! In those arts we must rely upon memory to comprehend a complete work.

The immediacy of visual art is an advantage for its decorative aspect but limits its ability to illustrate. Illustration demonstrates quickly and clearly where words fumble and grope, but it doesn't tell stories with ease. Because of this, the stubborn everpresentness of art besets narrative painting. Narrative art attempts to represent stories, but how limited in scope those stories are compared with literature or history, and in the absence of explanation how often the visual takes over with its own ironies and subversions. In reference to this as it relates to his own medium, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase "decisive moment." His phrase applies to all storytelling in visual art.

The momentary story involves the entire pictorial field, both subject and setting. It gives equivalence to phenomena which can't be captured in literature: glances, physiognomies, gestures, qualities of light, accidental dilapidations, fortuitous relations. Such a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, but most of those words are descriptive rather than narrative: we can't see what comes before or after; the story can only be suggested. Immediacy reigns.

The poetry of immediacy lies behind the best modern painting, but distrust of it attends its many attachments, from salon painting through symbolism, dadaism, and surrealism to the pop art, minimalism, conceptualism, and so-called post-modernism of our own time.

Kenneth Noland's painting is immediate in the extreme, so much so that its detractors have suggested that it gratifies all too quickly, that it offers little beyond the instant of appreciation. Because Noland's art appeals more directly to eyesight than most previous art, the translation and interpretation of depicted images is bypassed. Expression is achieved through color and texture supported by easily comprehended formats. This immediacy is reinforced by the alla prima character of '60s painting, of which Noland is the supreme master. The application of exact colors without corrections, additions, and overpainting or glazing gives his pictures an extraordinary clarity. In this respect, Noland's mastery of color and geometry recalls Vermeer.

But give doubters their due: it's a well known fact that most art doesn't survive its initial impact. When fashions pass so does their immediate appeal. That kind of immediacy is transitory. It stems from the satisfaction of expectations.

While Noland's art is immediate, the inference of shallowness doesn't follow. Like Mozart's music, the sensuous simplicity of his art has great depths. In Noland's art, the apprehension of those depths is contained in the instant of appreciation. His immediacy is confined to that instant. It's an ongoing instant, a little eternity.


THE ABILITIES CALLED FOR by an art form in one age or decade aren't always necessary in another. For example, the kind of hand-eye coordination required to draw accurately from nature has seldom been called for by major art in this century. Certainly representational drawing has been used, but where the skill existed - and with Picasso it existed in abundance - one senses that it wasn't central to the artist's highest achievements.

Noland has developed two abilities to a high pitch. One is a vast and precise color memory. The second is an acute sense of format and proportion. How many of his contemporaries possess these basic skills is impossible to tell. What is certain is that Noland has developed them beyond his peers. His color vocabulary has grown from relatively simple beginnings in the "circles" through the precision and complexity of the "stripes" to the shimmering transparencies and opacities of the "doors" and "flares." And his formats have grown apace. Noland is one of the great innovators in pictorial layout and format in this century, perhaps the greatest since Picasso. Many of his series have been characterized by substantial amendments to the character of the modern picture. "Circles;" "chevrons;" "needle diamonds;" "stripes;" "shapes" and "surfboards;" "doors" and "flares" - all these innovations in format might have spelled a career to a lesser artist. No artist of our time has made as many fundamental contributions to the character of the modern painting.

© Terry Fenton

Two recent Noland "circles", painted in 1998
Both acrylics and acrylic collage on canvas