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Noland at the Peak

At Yares Art on Fifth Avenue is a stupendous show.  It is entitled "Kenneth Noland: Context is the Key -- Paintings: 1958-1970" (through January 22, 2022).  I don't know quite what "context" Yares refers to.  Certainly the socioeconomic and political troubles of that far-off era, while they may seem trifling in retrospect, were no less dire at the time than our current evils seem today. Maybe the gallery is thinking in esthetic terms of the '60s as a period when the sun of modernism wasn't yet as nearly obscured by the clouds of anti-modernism, the way it is today. Whatever. Anyway, it's a helluva show.


Kenneth Noland was just 35 when his first mature paintings hit the art world with the force of an explosion in October 1959.  They were in a solo show at French & Company, where Clement Greenberg was employed as an advisor, and Greenberg had been following Noland's activities since the summer of 1950. This is not to say that the artist hadn't packed in much other experience, personal and artistic, both before and after 1950. 

He was born in the small but relatively enlightened town of Asheville, NC in 1924.   This was before the University of North Carolina had established its liberal arts college there, but after the birth of the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who would publish Look Homeward, Angel, a fictionalized version of his own upbringing in Asheville, in 1929.

Kenneth Noland's father was a physician, it says on the web today.  When I first met the artist, in the spring of 1969, I asked him his father's occupation. He said that his father had been a pathologist, and I reported that in the story that I wrote about him in Time.

When Greenberg read that story, he snorted that "pathological" was more like it. I don't know the truth of that, although I have long believed that this art critic played substitute father to any number of artists whose parents hadn't been adequately parental.

According to Kenworth Moffett's 1977 monograph on Noland, though, the father was also a Sunday painter, while the mother played the piano. There were always brushes and paints around the home, and three of its four sons went in for art themselves.  Kenneth, the third son, went to public school in Asheville, and early on conceived a passion for speed – fast planes, fast cars – that would stay with him on into adulthood. 

When he graduated from high school, it was the middle of World War II.  He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, becoming first a glider pilot and later a cryptographer.   When the first atom bombs decisively ended the war, he was stationed in the Middle East.

After the war, he went on to study art (on the G.I. Bill of Rights) at progressive Black Mountain College, 16 miles from Asheville.  It had only been founded in 1933 but already was staffed with and/or attended by a glittering array of prominent teachers and promising students, both during the regular academic year and at its summer sessions. 

The two teachers from whom Noland learned most in his two years as a fulltime student seem to have been Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers.  Bolotowsky he learned from directly through classroom exposure and Albers more by osmosis as he was director of the entire school.   Both were geometric abstractionists but represented different outlooks – Albers the more doctrinaire and rationalistic one of the Bauhaus and Bolotowsky the more subjective and intuitive one of Mondrian and De Stijl.

Another artist whom Noland met through Black Mountain was the sculptor Ossip Zadkine, who also taught in Paris and with whom Noland studied for a year there (again, on the G. I. Bill  of Rights) around 1948.  That is to say, he studied sculpture in Zadkine's classes but painted pictures in his own time.

During this period he began to become more aware of the greatness of Matisse, that master colorist, and the far less rigid variants on geometric abstraction created by that master of whimsy, Paul Klee.

Returning to the U.S., Noland moved to Washington, DC, and began to support himself by teaching at various art schools, plus other less relevant occupations (like driving a cab).It was through one of these teaching assignments that he met another abstract painter, Morris Louis, with whom he found he shared many interests: the two became close friends.

Being in Washington, Noland could (and did) become even more immersed in Klee, as the Phillips Collection had a fine collection of this artist's work.  He had also met Cornelia Langer, daughter of a U.S. senator. She had gone to Sarah Lawrence, the progressive college in Bronxville, NY, where she'd studied with the sculptor David Smith and also become friendly with the fellow student who became Smith's second wife.

Thus Cornelia was able to introduce Noland to Smith, and to become Noland's (first) wife herself in 1950. (They had three children before divorcing in 1957.)

In 1950, also, Noland returned to Black Mountain College for its summer session. This was where he first met Greenberg. The critic was not impressed by the Klee-like work that Noland was making at that time.  But he thought that Noland had "character," and he admired "character."  He thought that if somebody had "character," it augured well for his (or her) in the future (he said I had  "character" the first time he met me, too).

After that, Greenberg encouraged Noland.   He also encouraged Louis, whom Noland introduced to him.  It was through Greenberg that both artists appear to have become close – but not too close -- to the greats of the first generation abstract expressionists, especially Pollock.

If they had been living in New York, they would have been surrounded by – and most likely influenced by -- not only the example being set by Willem de Kooning but also the many less distinguished examples being set by de Kooning's admirers/imitators in the second generation of abstract expressionism.

The advantage of being outside of New York, based in Washington, was that Noland and Louis didn't have all that hanging over their heads.  They could and did come to New York, but only to see what they really wanted to see…

In April 1953, as is widely known, it was to the studio of Helen Frankenthalerthat Greenberg took them, to examine her new method of staining thinned paint into unsized canvas.

In the 2011 Noland catalogue that Paul Hayes Tucker wrote for Mitchell, Innes and Nash, I read that she had experimented with this technique on several canvases, but I am not convinced from it that she showed all of them to Noland and Louis—or that they couldn't see for themselves that the best of them was "Mountains and Sea" (1952). 

And, I'd add, it must have been important for them to see that not only was this a new way of applying paint, but also that it could be used to create masterpieces.

Noland and Louis returned to Washington, and began trying to develop their own masterpieces, employing this new technique.  But it would take both of them years, and entail many false starts. 

By 1954, Louis had created his first distinctive paintings, in the series now known as "The Veils."  But he soon stopped making them and reverted to paintings in the style of first-generation abstract expressionism for three years. Then he destroyed all of these, and reverted to the Veils in 1957.

Although he participated in shows during this period, not until April 1959 did he really hit the big time, with a show of The Veils at Manhattan's French & Company.  And though Louis continued to paint and his fame continued to grow, he died tragically of lung cancer at the age of only 49 in September 1962.

Noland would enjoy far more longevity – he didn't die until January 2010, at the ripe age of 85.   But it took him longer to arrive at his own mature style. Describing the highly-forgettable ins and outs of his evolution between 1953 and 1958 clearly taxed all of Moffett's ingenuity in his monograph on the artist.

I do remember reading that at one point Greenberg prevailed upon Noland to destroy a whole run of his paintings because they too closely resembled Louis's Veils. 

(This was where Greenberg excelled – not in creating but in criticizing, less in adding, more in subtracting.  In the '70s, his detractors liked to accuse him of making the pictures credited to Louis, but anyone who ever saw Greenberg's own feeble efforts at abstraction knew better.)


By 1959, Noland was running on a full tank of gas and at least twelve cylinders. That's where this latest magnificent show at Yares Art begins—with the "circles" (aka "targets") that starred in that first unforgettable show at French & Company, six months after Morris Louis had showed in the same space.

Indeed, the central space at Yares takes us on an extended tour of almost all of the highlights of Noland's most brilliant years between 1959 and 1967: not only three "circles," but also four "chevrons," and four "diamonds."  

There are many other Nolands in the gallery's capacious nooks and crannies, and/or present merely on the checklist, but I going to focus in this stellar central space with what I could actually see and hope to describe without trying my readers' patience.

Noland's compositions are simplicity itself, including only a series of stripes within the picture plane, stripes that serve to emphasize an iconic emblem or to echo the shape of the canvas itself.

But the magnificence of the color combinations and the subtlety of the hues within these combinations provide an embarrassment of richness that both complements and overwhelms what would otherwise be merely minimal compositions.

On the first wall of the main gallery space at Yares, for example, are ranged two "circles" on either side of a row of three "chevrons."

One "circle" is "Sunwise" (1960) and its outer concentric circles are a clear blue and a mustard yellow, surrounding a central disc – a sunburst of bright orange. The other "circle" is "Blue Extent" (1962). It is a symphony of pale blue, dark blue, black and white concentric circles. Both are about six feet square.

The three "chevrons" between them are not too big and not too small – all three just about four feet square.  From left to right, they are "Largesse"(1965), "No Bid" (1965),and "Plunge" (1965).

The first combines olive green, medium blue, and mauve.  The second rhymes deep blue, white, black, medium blue and black.  The third has brown, deep purple, deep blue, brown, and another deep blue.

At right angles to this remarkable display, and facing the gallery's reception desk, hangs "Pent" (1966), a huge and broadly horizontal "diamond," nearly 16 feet from sidewise tip to tip and more than five feet from top to bottom.Its coloristic range is even more varied: the slanting stripes run from lime to mint to forest green to electric blue to black.

Nor is Noland done with the changes he rings on his coloristic peal of bells. On the wall facing the entry wall are hung first, "Fete" (1969), a variation on a "circle" of which I shall say more in a bit.  Next come three tall, narrow diamonds, each with three, tall narrow stripes of color.

With "Trivalent" (1967), the three stripes are peach, sky blue and blackish blue.  With "Flying Go" (1967), the colors are lime, medium blue and peach.   And with  "Crest" (1967), it's a yellow, medium blue and blackish blue that we see.

Finishing off the row is "Half Time" (1964), a nice big "chevron," nearly six feet square and boasting an especially affluent-looking quintet of colors: deep purple, cinnamon, scarlet, pink and green.

In this central space, there are also one large and four small horizontal "stripe" paintings. They are all very handsome, and the small ones in particular are charming, but all are from 1969 or later, and this is after the "stripe" paintings had reached their peak.

It is one of my abiding regrets that I didn't yet have the wits to write about Noland's 1967 show at Emmerich for Time. I saw this show and dimly remember it as featuring huge,  brilliantly-colored horizontal "stripe" paintings.

However, at that stage, I was still fixated on the "protractor" paintings of Frank Stella.  By the time I'd matured enough to write about Noland, it was 1969 and he was showing paler (though still very attractive) "stripe" paintings (at Larry Rubin's gallery).,

Still, I can only be grateful to Yares for bringing the spirit of the '60s so vividly back for me. Although, as I said at the beginning of this piece, the trials and tribulations of that decade seemed just as bad to thinking people then as those of today strike thinking people now, somehow I remember it also as a decade of greater hope and promise – at least in the beginning, and as late as '66 (when I was titillating Time's readers with the frou-frou of "Swinging London"),

At some point, though, say around 1968, the decade took a turn into Nightmare Alley. What had been great fun in the heyday of JFK became gloomier as the war in Vietnam became less and less winnable and Martin Luther King's nonviolence evolved into black separatism. 

Moreover, this gloom is still with us, in one way or another.  It is a heritage of what appears in retrospect to have been a major sociocultural paradigm change -- one that stretched far across the entire range of human consideration, far exceeding the modest confines of the art world.

The cheerier mood of the early '60s may have been what Yares had in mind when they prefaced the title of this show "Context Is the Key." The context in which Noland's paintings were made now appears to have been a more optimistic moment than the one we experience today.  

Whether or not times were actually better is beside the point: what the paintings so superbly express is the ebullient mood of that point in time.

In some ways, "Fete" expresses that optimistic mood better than any other work in the show. It is a "circle" painting, but one with emoluments that I haven't seen in any other Noland painting.   These consist of  five black radiating lines which leap toward the perimeter of the painting but are firmly anchored in its central ring of concentric circles.  These circles are in turn  colored blue, acid yellow, white and black (and if you look real carefully, there are a couple of pale pink circles, too).

Together, they suggest an explosion of some sort, the burst of a firecracker – or fireworks --- going off,  maybe a holiday (Fourth of July?) celebration.   Anyway, it captures an upwardly soaring moment and – such is the magic of art – it (and its fellows at this beautiful show) can still give a lift to the spirits of anybody with eyes to see.


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