Kenneth Noland

CONTEXT

Speech delivered at University of Hartford, March, 1988
to symposium "The Bennington Years"

 

TODAY I WANT to talk to you about context, creativity, content, commercialism, careerism and general craziness. To my mind these are big C's of art. They've meant a lot to me and I suspect they affect all artists -- for better or for worse.

For me CONTEXT is the key -- from that comes the understanding of everything. This symposium is called "The Bennington Years" .... but those years for me and for Jules and Tony were a small part of a much larger context.... a context in which people who knew and respected and were stimulated by each other, both directly and indirectly, unwittingly became a "movement". Who were these people and how did this all come about?

Context begins with other artists -- seniors and mentors. David Smith, Mark Rothko, Gottleib were lucky as young artists in the early 30's to have met Milton Avery and talked with him. This was the general context that coalesced in the mid and late 50's.

One thing I learned early on from the examples of David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb and others was to be AWARE always that careerism could become part of the content of one's art. They all kept a distance from "The Scene." The scene then as now was centered in New York. For the most part, I've kept a bit apart from that attractive and seductive city. I've done it by living in the country within commuting distance. There are dangers as well as benefits in "distancing" of any kind, but for better or for worse in my case its been a necessity.

With artists of my own generation there was at first no group identity -- and never a clique. In the '50s Morris Louis and I were not known, David Smith and Helen Frankenthaler were not much known. Pollock was well known, certainly, but for all the wrong reasons. He was known as much for being wild and unconventional in his working methods as for being a great artist -- "Jack the dripper" and all that. Morris Louis and I knew Pollock was THE most interesting artist around in the forties & fifties. We knew it not from his actions but from his art. That was the beginning of our friendship. We also knew Hans Hofmann as a teacher. Earlier on I had taken Morris to New York to meet the critic, Clement Greenberg. He was a catalyst because he'd written about and pointed toward the best artists, past and present. Their influence was like soul food for Morris and me.

Clem had made it known that Pollock was a great painter. Later, Clem met Tony Caro in England and suggested he see Morris and me on his first trip to America. My intense friendship with Tony began there. Jules and I became friends slightly later around a poker and ping pong table. Clem was central for all of us.

I met David Smith through my former wife, Cornelia, who'd studied with him. As time goes on, I realize more and more that, beginning in the early 30's, David Smith began setting the precedent for what was to come later for many of us. I would say that a general characteristic of our work was a looseness of handling materials, an easy kind of skill and a very critical use of the eye and hand: David Smith worked that way. Pollock worked that way. So did Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Caro, and Olitski. This kept the making of one particular work at a time in focus. It kept the actual work in progress alive.

That's the way I work. Usually I start by fooling with the stuff, make messes. Sometimes something comes out of it; sometimes it doesn't. I paint my paintings directly. I almost never paint over. This maintains the attention of the picture for me, my contact with what I am doing. Usually I throw away what I don't get right the first time.

I practice. I guess I've got obsessed with the idea of practice. Art is a practice -- a kind of exercise of the senses. I think it was Hemingway who said that if a writer really new his subject he could say it concisely. To do that you have to know your materials as well as what and how you see. You have to search and work and practice.

Other art that was being made at in the '50s and early '60s -- second Generation Abstract Expressionism and the beginnings of pop art -- shared some of these characteristics but had a more self-consciousness and calculated reliance upon depiction and illustration. This leads to the issue of content and subject matter. I want to point out that responding to depiction and illustration often involves something apart from the formal characteristics of painting. It's often a distraction. On the other hand, purely formal characteristics exercise the senses as do string quartets, piano concertos, Dixieland. Because of this the representation I'm interested in is of those things only the eye can touch.

I think of painting without subject matter as music without words. It affects our innermost being as space, spaces, air.

AIRLESS.... SHINING.... WET.... WINDY.... HEAVY.... GLARE.... CALM.... SMOOTH EDGED.... COOL.... SMILE.... LIGHT.... SOFT.... WET.... BRITTLE.... DARK.... COARSE.... FOAM.... SANDY.... SERENE.... RAPID.... MOIST.... PINK.... ROSE.... CLASH.... WHITE.... YELLOW.... SHADOWS.... PURITY.... ALL NATURE.... I consider these references are all elements of my subject matter.

I've followed other artists gratefully and I hope I've also followed my own path .... sometimes along side other artists. I've also been willing to share any help that I could give to any other artist. I love art and I love the life of art and I only wish that the real life of art could affect social change in a good way and that the invasion of commercialism in art and the invasion of entertainment into all areas of our lives hadn't brought some of the worst features of our culture into the realm of art.