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BETWEEN 1500 AND 1950 the dominant medium used by Western painters was oil paint applied to sized and primed canvas. It was an enormously rich medium for the purposes of pictorial representation, making possible effects of light, atmosphere, and depiction that had previously been difficult or impossible. Chiaroscuro, sfumato, and atmospheric perspective; glazing, scumbling, impasto, and painterliness in general; landscape painting and portraiture - all of these were made possible or enormously enhanced by oil paint. The merits of oil are many, its limitations few: it's slow to dry and can't be used on unsized canvas. These limitations hardly mattered when it came to depiction on small to midsize canvases, but as artists like Pollock sought to work quickly and intuitively in a large scale, those limitations became impediments. When acrylic paint was introduced in the 1950s it offered a attractive solution to them.
Acrylic paint is a polymer which dries through the evaporation of a thinner to a permanent, flexible plastic film. Unlike oil paint, it doesn't destroy canvas fibre as it dries. This means that canvas needn't be stretched and protected by size and gesso. Acrylic paint can be applied directly to unstretched, unsized canvas. Because of this and because it tends to be manufactured in the form of a thick liquid rather than a paste it has become an ideal medium for working on unstretched canvas laid out horizontally, a practice developed by Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler prior to the advent of acrylics. Since its introduction it has become the medium of choice for most abstract painters.
South Salem studio, 1982.
A typical studio for an abstract painter who uses acrylic paint has a large floor or platform area for working on one or more pictures at a time. A long length of canvas can be stapled to the floor and painted upon as a continuous unit from which one or many pictures may be cropped. Even when painted on individual rectangles of canvas, the cropping of pictures from them is a common though not invariable practice. Cropping often begins on the floor but is most commonly practised on the studio walls. It involves taping off areas of the painting, usually in a rectangular format. The resulting pictures are then stretched and framed. Because cropping is such an ongoing activity with many abstract painters, stretched and framed works are often recropped before they leave the studio.
Acrylic paint has undergone considerable development since its introduction. Acrylic that could be thinned with solvent (Magna) was largely replaced by water soluble acrylics (Liquitex and Aqua-Tec) by the mid '60s. This was followed by the development of translucent mediums ("gels") which make possible painterly effects on a large scale. Acrylic gel offers the possibility of applying very thick and flexible translucent (and recently transparent) glazes, something not possible with oil paint. These developments have been accompanied by the introduction of pigments and pigment enhancers of considerable use to the abstract painter: pearlessence, metallic powders, and interference pigments.
Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis pioneered the use of acrylic paint in abstract art. Both were early masters of what came to be known as "color field" or "stain" painting. For many years, beginning with his centered images in the '50s Noland soaked dilute acrylic paint into unstretched cotton canvas. Paint was applied with a brush in the beginning but subsequently with sponges and rollers as well. The first paint Noland used for this purpose was Magna, a very liquid paint that maintained its intensity when thinned. Dilution produced subtle gradations in transparency.
While working on the "chevrons" In the mid-sixties he switched to water-thinned acrylics for safety reasons. Water thinned acrylic was more opaque and milky than Magna and didn't bond as readily with the canvas. He developed methods to counter this: water tension breaker (household detergent) helped carry the pigment into the canvas and made the color appear more transparent; pearlessence mixed with the pigment helped get luminescence into color. Since that time he has continued to exploit new mediums, pigments, and supports.
Noland was one of the first artists to exploit the potential offered by cropping. From the mid '60s, this led to a series remarkable formats including "needle diamonds," "shapes," "surfboards," and the recent "doors" and "flares." This practice is inherent in his art and played a substantial role in the "stripes" of the late '60s, where minute vertical adjustments and measured horizontal extensions were decisive.
Because stain painting favoured the even spread of color, Noland's remarkable touch passed unnoticed for two decades. But it was inherent in his approach from the beginning. He's the master of the attachment of paint to canvas, discovering transparencies and intensities of color in what he calls the wetness of paint. As he puts it: "Painters swim in that soup. When it dries it just freezes up."
Although he often applies paint evenly on a large scale, Noland remains a master of great delicacy, an old fashioned artist-craftsman with an extraordinary feeling for materials.
Our culture distrusts color. Because color makes an immediate, intuitive appeal to the eye it seems sensual, frivolous, irrational, vulgar. It's resisted in the name of seriousness. Black and white are preferred in its stead, especially black. Black is the shade of respectability and disrespectibility, of the puritan and the punk. Drawing and writing make do with black or one of its equivalents. Even John Ruskin carried the distrust of color so far as to suggest that color was the least important aspect of art.
Color spreads and covers surfaces, infusing them with optical vibrancy. For these reasons it carries enormous expressive weight in painting, especially in large paintings where surface area counts for more.
There are two basic types of color in painting: local and atmospheric.
Local colors are the actual colors of things, uninfluenced by light or atmosphere. Local color identifies and separates shapes upon the picture surface. It's the stuff of which patterns are made. It's the color used in folk and "primitive" painting, where its charm comes from the tension between decorative pattern and spatial organization.
Atmospheric color modifies local colors as they are affected by different lights and layers of atmosphere. It infuses pictures with color ambiance.
Because atmospheric color relies on the blending and blurring of colors into one another and the alteration of colors with transparent glazes it was facilitated enormously by the medium of oil paint.
Oil paint emerged in response to a need. The new naturalism of Renaissance Flemish and Italian painters called for more comprehensive settings. Shallow depicted spaces - niches and anonymous gilded backgrounds - gave way gradually to larger and more comprehensive settings, to indoors and to "all outdoors." In both cases artists had to evoke a convincing space. Convincing space called for effects of atmosphere and light.
Oil paint was an ideal material for rendering this space. Because it was greasy and slow drying, it kept color from "bleeding" into adjacent areas yet allowed controlled blending. Oil could also and used as a translucent tint or glaze over an underpainting. Thus oil paint enabled atmospheric color and enormously enhanced its power.
John Ruskin called this power "tone":
I understand two things by the word 'tone':- first, the exact relief and relation of objects against and to each other in substance and darkness, as they are nearer or more distant, and the perfect relation of the shades of all of them to the chief light of the picture, whether that be sky, water or anything else. Secondly, the exact relation of the colors of the shadows to the colors of the lights, so that they may be at once felt to be merely different degrees of the same light; and the accurate relation among the illuminated parts themselves, with respect to the degree in which they are influenced by the color of the light itself, whether warm or cold; so that this being chiefly dependent on that peculiar and inexplicable quality of each color laid on, which makes the eye feel both what is the actual color of the object represented, and that it is raised to its apparent pitch by illumination. (Author's italics.)
For Ruskin, atmospheric color did more than simply imply recession. It placed "the whole of the picture under one kind of light, and in one kind of atmosphere." The tension between local color and this altered, atmospheric color is one of the most powerful tools of Western art, comparable to tonality in music. Far more than a matter of accurate representation, it uses the difference between the expected and the actual as a means of enhancing pictorial design thereby offering a deeper and more complex unity.
This tension was successively heightened and strengthened by the impressionists and post impressionists. By the early 20th century, Matisse and the fauves raised it to a still higher pitch. Fauvism offered vibrant color in more or less representational formats. Fauve color was bold, side-by-side color, favouring saturated hues and near complementaries - vermillion against deep blue is virtually a fauve mannerism. Its boldness pointed the way to a more autonomous art of color, but of the artists in the movement, only Matisse went on to develop the kind of pictorial structures that supported that autonomy.
Kenneth Noland is one of the great masters of color in Western Art, and his mastery is central to that tradition. He's one of the rare abstract painters who has the ability to assemble a collection of local colors and infuse them with something akin to atmospheric ambiance.
The creation of a picture out of adjacent flat colors is more than a matter of arranging colors that inflect one another. Op art, with its simple color vibrations accomplished that, but to what end? Pictorial substance in op art paintings tends to be overwhelmed by optical effects.
The essence of Noland's genius in the '60s and '70s was to make pictures from relations of relatively flat colors in anonymous shapes. He isn't a fauve - at least not in any strict sense. His color tends to be much more varied than theirs, gaining autonomy, as did Matisse's, from its interaction with non-representational formats.
Noland's pictures seldom have a homogenized appearance. He can cast a picture within a narrow color range without succumbing to simple decorative schemes. He also has the ability to accent color areas through judicious combinations of touch and proportion. Some stripe paintings, for example, employ whites and off-whites in combinations that have the particularity of surprise. He surprises with the seemingly ordinary, and the surprise doesn't diminish with repeated viewings.
He's also a master of the texture of color. All color areas have a texture that can work for or against them: they can be glossy or matte, clear and transparent or opaque skins of paint. Until the '80s, Noland's color was produced by staining dilute acrylic paint into unsized canvas. Color was given material substance by the canvas itself and the artist's touch. Generally color seemed embedded in rather than on the picture surface. Since the early '80s he has made the paint substance itself carry more and more color texture.