Paul Theroux



These "shaped paintings'? - Ken Noland's characteristically unpompous description - are sculptural pieces, which also occupy our space. This is another way of saying that, gazing at them, we are also moving around them, reacting to them, and perhaps reminding ourselves that we are not alone.

Noland's genius for color has been rightly celebrated, but the physicality of his work has not been much remarked upon. This is odd and overdue, for as a painter who has also created a powerful array of large-scale and imposing sculptures in metal, Noland is intensely aware of the physical. His sculptures are great brooding artifacts that demand confrontation, and his paintings are sculptural, too. In conversation, Noland has elaborated on the fact that the imaginative activity of choosing a painting's size, deciding on its dimensions and whether it must be horizontal or vertical - as well as the whole framing process - makes every painter something of a sculptor.

In the way he lives his life, Noland is not just the sociable person he appears: he is an anatomist of human response, a great noticer of people. The pleasure of his painting, and much of the bewitchment of Noland the grand innovator, derives from his close observation of the way people look at pictures. As a museum-goer he observes much more than the pictures on the walls.

"Notice how people in museums position themselves at the center of a painting?" he has said to me. "Then they move from one foot to the other. They establish physical contact." You might also say that no work of art inspires more movement - more back and forth - than a piece of sculpture. It is a Noland notion that in the presence of sculpture we are conscious that we are sharing space - we are as much aware of our nerves and ourselves as we are of the piece itself. The piece is not everything; the interaction with the viewer is - the viewer's own history, emotions, intelligence and imagination. This new work is proof of that.

The origin of these shaped paintings goes back more than thirty years, to the early 1970s when Noland had begun to make what he called "diamond" paintings - five and six sided (or faceted) works. Some of the works in this exhibition were begun several decades ago - works he has mulled over for years and, in the concentration of his Maine solitude, he has been inspired to refine them into the pieces we see today. Noland says simply, "They've evolved."

One of the conventions of painting is the notion of the picturesque; the picture (all right angles) as a window. These shaped paintings are anti-windows, more mirrorlike than opaque. We are not looking out and through them. The experience of the rocking quality of these colors and stripes allows us to become part of these shapes. There is a sense of invitation in the variety of these multi-sided works five sides, six sides, and in the case of "Open and Above" even more.

These works are subtle, startling and engaging, and because of their physicality they are both challenging and consoling. In his eighth decade Ken Noland is still helping us to discover new things and to see the world afresh.


Paul Theroux
2005, Massachusetts