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Circling Back to Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland, like his fellow first-tier, Color field painter, Helen Frankenthaler, is enjoying a strong revival of interest. These artists’ alliance with the powerful and polarizing formalist critic Clement Greenberg greatly helped them early on, but hindered them in later years when Greenberg’s reputation and influence were on the wane, and painting, especially formally-oriented abstraction was looked upon as retrograde. Now that Greenberg, who died in 1994, is safely confined to the precincts of art history (although he too, along with his critical and personal enemy, Harold Rosenberg, is being looked at afresh), and painting is no longer automatically disparaged, these artists can be evaluated on their own terms and not through the polemical lens of old art world arguments.

Noland’s current exhibition at Yares Art, Kenneth Noland: Circles – Early (1959-1962) + Late (1999-2002) brings together prime examples of one of the artist’s signature motifs: concentric rings of color centrally and symmetrically ordered in square canvases. The rings float on either a field of unprimed canvas or, in the later works, on a luminously painted background. Noland is able to coax considerable variation from what might seem to be an unyielding formal device. Circles (and tondo paintings) are notoriously recalcitrant: hard to compose, hard to make dynamic, and especially hard in their demand that the artist navigate the fraught technical territory between the perfect, the little off, and the quite wonky. Color of course functions as Noland’s main differentiator. He plays the score of warm/cool, declarative/subtle, and light/dark like a virtuoso. In addition, he carefully controls the width of the bands, their spacing, the looseness or tightness of their execution, and the general scale relationship of the ring structure to the blank or less differentiated background, imbuing his colors with a precise range of optical weight and a finely tuned emotional resonance. This is abstract painting with both hands on the wheel.

Noland, like Frank Stella, with whom he was often paired in the ‘60s, worked in distinct series. In the first part of his mature career he painted circles (1958–63), chevrons (1963‚Äč–65), diamonds (1964–69), and then stripes (1967–70). Although new series — plaids, irregular polygons, and the like — appeared regularly over the years, Noland at various points was drawn back to a reconsideration of those earlier paintings. His later efforts often used new materials, such as metallized acrylics and gels, as well as showier applications like trowelling and spraying. Those re-dos were not very well received, and it was daring for Yares to mount a show pairing some of the best of the early circles (the paintings that established his reputation) with a selection of similarly formatted work from the last decade of Noland’s life.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the late circles held their own. The early circles are technically straightforward. They are painted in oil-based acrylics stained into unprimed canvas. While some paintings, like “That” (1958–59) add gestural treatments to the ring edges, or “Bess” (1962) incompletely paint the background, the strongest of those early paintings like “Teton Noir” or “Spring Call” (both 1961), are clear, unembellished and calm, with rings either directly adjoining or separated by narrow bands of raw canvas. Composition is not avoided, as it is in Minimalism, but simplified — the logic residing in the general structure which anchors Noland’s intuitive scale and color choices. Those colors, though striking, are muted: staining them into absorbent raw canvas quiets them down, adding to the paintings’ meditative presence.

This is not the case with the later circles. Their acrylic paint, fortified with micronized metal and heavily loaded pigments, is brushed and sprayed onto white primed canvas, sharply jumping up the saturation and brightness. The backgrounds are no longer neutral foils, but rather intensely active participants, always fully painted, often with contrasting iridescent oversprays that change in tone depending on the viewing angle. Noland takes risks with his colors, employing particularly intense primary/secondary combinations, for example, the unlovely mustard and lavender complementaries in “Mysteries: Golden Glow,” or raising the chromatic stakes with jangly fluorescent-looking primaries in “Mysteries Costa del Sol” (both 2001). In the later paintings, crisp edges are markedly crisper and softer transitions are not watercolor-like bleeds, but cinematic, sprayed fade-outs. The late circles feel nervously post-Pop, a bit glitzy and sparkly, but smart and up to date. They may not be classics like the early circles, but they are definitely worth a hard look.

Kenneth Noland: Circles – Early (1959-1962) + Late (1999-2002) continues at Yares Art (745 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor) Upper East Side, Manhattan until December 30.


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