APPRECIATING NOLAND

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. -- Mozart


Brass Sound, 1962

WERE ONE TO SUBSTITUTE "eye" for "ear," the foregoing blurb by a great composer to promote a new piano concerto might fairly describe the art of Kenneth Noland.

When I saw his art for the first time in 1967, his paintings looked very strange indeed. Never before had I encountered abstract art that was so simple, direct, and beautiful yet so radically new. Noland, like Mozart, was and remains a revolutionary artist, yet one whose work has immediate appeal. His art has a perpetual freshness that enriches the mainstream of Western painting, to which it unquestionably belongs. Noland's ability to renew his art has been one of the rare excitements offered by contemporary art over the past half century.

Many people have written about Noland and written well; 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 completely to bear repeating ­ and it's impossible to properly acknowledge my debt to the pioneering writers on Noland: Clement Greenberg, Ken worth Moffett, and Michael Fried. One can't help but absorb their insights.

Although what follows was written to accompany an exhibition of Noland's work, 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 to provide much of the "what" and some of the "why" to the interested art lover as well as the artist and collector.

CONTENT

THE NONSENSE SPOUTED about "content" in art fills volumes, much of it, I suspect, from people who want art to be something other than it is: journalism, biography, philosophy, psychology, cultural history, semantics, deconstruction, pathology ­ supposedly something greater than what art does or can do. In the process they miss too much of the art.

The great art of the past suggests that what art does best is something apart from all that: while art can contain journalism and psychology and much else besides, its relation to all that is fundamentally detached and often ambiguous. Art, qua art, operates on a different plane. A great picture isn't a front page; its content doesn't occur inside exclamation marks. Content and expression are real but ineffable, even to the artist. The artist doesn't so much express himself as he endeavors to make expressive things.

Noland's painting functions on that unique 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." What knowledge it provides comes via the sense of sight, which it both clarifies and exalts.

IMMEDIACY

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

Pictorial art is unique in its immediacy. Unlike music, literature, and the performing arts, the appreciation of a picture doesn't occur over time. We don't have to rely on memory to comprehend a picture. It's all there before our eyes: grasped and appreciated in an instant, a little eternity.
While the immediacy of pictorial art is an advantage for its decorative aspect, it limits its ability to narrate. Illustration demonstrates quickly and clearly where words fumble and grope, but doesn't tell stories with ease; the stubborn everpresentness of pictorial art besets narrative painting. To be sure, narrative art attempts to tell stories, but how limited in scope are those stories compared with those of literature or history, and in the absence of explanation how often the visual takes over with its own ironies and ambiguities. In reference to this as it related to his own medium, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase "decisive moment." His phrase applies to storytelling in all visual art.

The momentary visual story involves the entire pictorial field, both subject and setting, giving equivalence to phenomena that can't be captured easily 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 representative or descriptive rather than narrative. We're confined by and large to the depicted present; we can't see what comes before or after; the narrative, if it exists, can only be suggested. Immediacy subverts narrative; in pictorial art the poetry of immediacy reigns.

The poetry of immediacy lies behind the best modern painting, but distrust of it attends many of its attachments, from salon painting through Symbolism, Dadaism, and Surrealism to the Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, and so-called Post-modernist Arts of our own time.
Kenneth Noland's painting is immediate in the extreme, so much so that detractors suggest that it gratifies all too quickly, that it appeals only to the senses and not to the mind, that it offers little beyond the instant of appreciation. But that little is everything: because Noland's art appeals so directly to eyesight, the translation and interpretation of images is bypassed. Expression comes through color and texture supported by diagrammatic formats. Its radical immediacy is reinforced by the alla prima character of '60s painting, of which Noland is a supreme master. The application of colors and textures with minimal corrections, additions, and overpainting or glazing gives his pictures an extraordinary clarity. In this respect, his mastery of color and geometry recalls Vermeer.

But give doubters their due: it's well known that most art doesn't survive its initial impact. When art fads pass so does much of their appeal. That kind of immediacy is transitory; it stems from the satisfaction of expectations ­ social, cultural, and temporal. Although Noland's art is immediate, the inference of shallowness doesn't follow. Like Mozart's music, its sensuous simplicity has great depths, but the apprehension of those depths is contained in and confined to a continuous instant.