NOLAND : S T R I P E S

 

Prologue:

S C A L E

FROM IMPRESSIONISM TO CUBISM, modernist painting embraced the conventions of the easel picture. However, by the late 1940s, many artists had begun to work on a larger scale. As Jackson Pollock put it, his revolutionary drip paintings didn't "come from the easel."

After WWII, many artists began to enlarge the freedom and spontaneity of the sketch by drawing from arm and shoulder rather than forearm and wrist. But while there was talk at the time of the "portable mural" (no doubt influenced by the Mexican muralists), the very large painting remained a tantalizing ideal rather than a common achievement. By the end of the decade, the general size of the easel painting had been enlarged substantially, but by no means to mural scale -- apart, that is, from a handful of large Pollocks which set a new standard. That standard was tantalizing but tenuous: even masterpieces like One and Autumn Rhythm seem a bit uncertain about the scale of drawing in relation to the size of the picture itself: in Autumn Rhythm it seems a bit large and forced, in One perhaps not large enough.

Of Pollock's contemporaries, even artists like Rothko and Still, both of whom worked with simple expanses of color, couldn't raise them effectively to mural size. The flaccid late Rothkos in the Rothko Chapel in Houston are a case in point, and Still's large paintings were generally taller than they were wide. Barnett Newman could, on occasion, stretch out, but by the early '60s his color had stiffened. Generally speaking, bigness impressed but didn't quite convince.

A breakthrough in scale came with the "Veils" of Morris Louis from 1958 and '59. Here a new kind of paint application (a variety of pouring or staining into unsized canvas) obviated one of the main problems that beset very large paintings, that of getting the scale of application to relate meaningfully to an enlarged picture format. Louis's poured "drawing" didn't depend on the the arm and shoulder, let alone the hand: transparent washes, restrained color, bilateral symmetry and mirror imaging helped carry this off, freeing his pictures from the scale of the hand and the brush. The "Veils" picked up where Pollock left off; they were the first paintings that seemed naturally large.

Although Noland used the same materials as Louis, he didn't -- at least not until the late 50's -- work on so large a scale. His "Circles" didn't demand large size as had Louis's "Veils" and "Unfurleds;" in fact they were somewhat limited in size by their square formats. In practice, the size of a square paintings is beholden to ceiling height and canvas width. Because of these constraints, the "portable mural" has tended to be wide rather than tall and avoids the square. With the "Chevrons," and "Needle Diamonds", larger horizontal Nolands began to appear, but prior to the "Stripes," his very large paintings didn't fully inhabit their size.

With the "Stripes," scale became exact in an unprecedented way. In effect, Noland dismantled or "deconstructed" the horizontal and vertical aspects of the picture rectangle. It was no longer seen as a rectangle to be filled, but rather as two vectors, affected by stacking in the vertical and extension in the horizontal. Horizontal bands were less inclined to separate into foreground and background than vertical ones and they allowed -- even insisted upon -- lateral extension. In the process, his art became one of exact scale and proportion. Color areas stretched to become horizontal panels, narrow bands extended into long color channels. As a result, many of the "Stripe" pictures were very wide -- often much wider than they were tall. In this they took on on the general proportions of the frieze, one of the most ancient decorative/pictorial schemes, but rejected its horizontal sequencing. They were as revolutionary as Picasso's collages half a century earlier.