THE ABILITIES CALLED FOR for by an art form in one age aren't always required by another. For example, the hand-eye coordination required to draw accurately from nature was seldom called for by major art in the last century. Certainly representational drawing was used, but where the skill existed -- and with Picasso and Matisse it existed in abundance -- one senses that it wasn't central to the artist's highest achievements.
Noland's art makes use of two particular abilities: the first a vast and precise color memory, the second an acute sense of format and proportion. How many of his contemporaries possess these basic skills is impossible to tell. What is certain is that Noland has refined them beyond his peers. His color vocabulary has grown from relatively simple beginnings in the "Circles" through the precision and complexity of the "Stripes" to the shimmering transparencies and opacities of the "Doors", "Flares", "New Circles" , and "Mysteries".
His formats have grown apace. Noland is one of the great innovators
in pictorial layout and format in this century, perhaps the greatest
since Picasso. Many of his series have been characterized by substantial
amendments to the character of the modern picture. "Circles;"
"Chevrons;" "Needle Diamonds;" "Stripes;"
"Shapes" and "Surfboards;" "Doors;"
and "Flares" -- all display innovations in format that
might have spelled a career to a lesser artist. No artist of our
time has made so many fundamental contributions to the formats
of modern painting.
KENNETH NOLAND WAS BORN in North Carolina in 1924. After studying at Black Mountain College in that state and later in Paris, in 1949 he settled in Washington, D.C. There he taught and painted until 1961. There, in 1952, he met the painter, Morris Louis.
It's common knowledge that Louis and Noland brought something new to painting during the '50s while living in that provincial milieu. Morris Louis, the elder of the two by a generation, broke through into major accomplishment" in 1954 -- two years before the death of Jackson Pollock - with his first "Veils. But provincialism took its toll and Louis faltered for three years. When he recovered in 1958, Noland had found his own voice. Noland never faltered.
This points to a unique aspect of Noland's artistic character. Despite his genius, despite the fact that he had lived in New York City in the 1940s, Louis was at bottom a provincial, whereas Noland never was. In Washington, it was Noland who kept Louis informed and in touch, Noland who introduced Louis to the critic Clement Greenberg in the early '50s, Noland who and led Louis to the radical new painting in New York.
There's nothing unusual in the fact that Noland grew up apart
from the center; most artists do. What is surprising is that he
has continued to live apart from it so much. Although he hasn't
actually worked on the periphery, like Cézanne before him
he has tended to work on the outskirts: Vermont, New York State,
California, Maine. Distance has advantages. It has enabled him
to keep in touch on his own terms while maintaining a useful detachment.
It may also explain his extreme productivity, for Noland is nothing
if not prolific. The status and lifestyle of the artist count
for little apart from the center. Fewer distractions give more
time to paint. Noland paints a lot.
WHEN THE CENTER OF advanced art crossed the Atlantic to New York in the 1940s it retained strong ties with Paris. Picasso, Miro, and Matisse stood solidly behind deKooning, Motherwell, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Gorky, and Pollock.
Jackson Pollock was one of the first of these artists to make major paintings that were distinctly American. This didn't happen overnight; Pollock's early paintings were as beholden to Picasso and Miro as anyone's. The revolution came with his drip paintings of the late '40s and early '50s where cubist layout operated with new freedom across large areas of canvas. Preconception counted in a new way in these pictures insofar as it prepared the way for spontaneous execution, a kind of visual improvisation. Composition in Pollock's drip paintings wasn't a matter of adjustments and corrections so much as inclinations and tendencies. His painterly drawing took on unexpected elegance and finish in his "all-over" format.
By the 1960s, American painting had combined the new conceptual framework suggested by Pollock with clear outlines and flat paint application. Noland was one of the initiators of this new manner, and his art dominated the '60s as Picasso's had the teens of this century. His declarative, symmetrical paintings exemplified this new manner, embodying what Clement Greenberg referred to as "Post Painterly Abstraction." Noland's "Targets" and "Chevrons" proclaimed his stature and by and large it's by these series he's recognized today. But Noland is more than the painter of an era, far more. Even at the time his paintings transcended many '60s tendencies:
HARD EDGE PAINTING reacted against the painterly incoherence of the worst abstract expressionism. Cool, clean, and clear, it was defiantly "post-painterly," but usually predictable in color and pedestrian in layout. Too many '60s painters believed that the clean contours produced by masked-off areas of acrylic paint were inherently superior to blurred and broken outlines. Despite his use of flat layouts Noland did not. Contours in his art always served the whole picture. Although hard edges appeared on occasion, mostly he avoided them. He wanted color areas in his paintings to merge with the canvas ground rather than detach from it.
OP ART, a variant of Hard Edge Painting, enjoyed a brief vogue in the '60s. It used strong contrasts of value and hue to create optical vibrations between adjacent colors and retinal afterimages. Noland's art spurned these distractions.
MINIMAL ART was more sculptural than the other '60s movements. Asserting the literal presence of the work of art was one of its primary objectives. Minimalism inclined to radical, deadpan simplicity: the single simple object in an otherwise empty room was a common exhibition device. Because it reveled in such academic incongruities, it was often little more than Surrealism disguised as abstraction. In comparison, Noland's paintings, even those with neutral formats, were never deadpan: his pale and gray-dominated stripe paintings (among them some masterpieces of the late '60s) were evocative rather than bland. The simple assertion of presence was never an issue; Noland's art has always aimed at rich pictorial expression.
POP ART came in a direct line from Surrealism and Dadaism. It was conventionally cubist in both format and touch; it illustrated; it nodded in the direction of its mainstream contemporaries. Not surprisingly, it has become the salon painting of our own time. Today it dominates the museums the way salon painting did a century ago, an easy and expensive art for a wide and wealthy clientele. Noland had nothing to do with Pop Art, although it has been suggested that his flat, clear color was taken up by painters like Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana.