It’s sad to learn, as I did here, that Kenneth Noland died at his home in Maine on 5 January, at the age of 85 years.
For those who like reading the labels before scanning the pictures — and also, perhaps more to the point, for the substantial majority of readers who’ve doubtless never heard of him — perhaps I’d better explain that Noland was one of the last surviving giants of colour field painting, a major figure surviving from the age in which the United States produced some of the greatest art it’s ever likely to produce.
Yet if Noland’s critical reputation has, over the past few decades, suffered from the mainstream conviction that, in order for the Next Big Thing to be any good at all, whole categories of older things must be deemed to be dated and silly, if not downright malign — a sloppy way to construct art history, admittedly, yet so much less risky than taking the time to look at individual works and evaluate them both with honesty and a degree of humility — well, then, this surely says more about the blind-spots of present-day connoisseurship than it does about Noland’s paintings. Deceptively simple, their surprising conjunction of incandescent Magna colour with cool-headed formal rigour ensured that they always added up to considerably more than wan illustrations of someone else’s theory or whim, spectacularly illuminated now and then by the blaze of critical cross-fire, in the same way that they always felt like more than potential historical relics, flat surfaces tinged with thinned-down nostalgia for yesterday’s more hard-edged hegemonic certainties.
Or so, anyway, it seems to me today, prompted by the news of Noland’s death to recall my single moment of real contact with the artist’s work.
First, however, before we come to all that, let’s attempt a quick biographical précis, if only because — as implied above, however much this may shock American art-enthusiasts of pleasantly mature vintage — there really are quite a lot of people out there for whom the name ‘Kenneth Noland’ conjures up neither museum-quality genius nor indeed revisionist contempt, but instead, absolutely nothing at all.
Oh, it’s tempting, if tendentious, to tell the story of Noland’s life in terms of his art-related influences, which were catholic, complex and significant. Noland was born in Asheville, North Carolina — a rather beautiful town, incidentally, nestled amid the lower slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, retaining a surprising amount of good late Victorian and Art Deco architecture, blessed both with clear air and sudden luminous mists — in 1924. His father was a successful pathologist as well as an amateur artist. At the age of 14 years, a chance encounter with Monet’s canvasses during a visit to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. prompted young Noland to borrow his father’s paints. Drafted into the US Army in 1941, Noland spent most of the Second World War in the Middle East, working as a cartographer and glider pilot for the Air Corps. Soon after his return to Asheville in 1946, he enrolled at Black Mountain College, where he began to study art.
Although it lasted only about a quarter of a century — from 1933 and 1957 — Black Mountain College was an eccentric liberal arts institution which employed or taught, at one point or another, pretty much everyone who turned out to be anyone within the American modernist pantheon. The arts staff included, at various moments, Josef Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Walter Gropius, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence and Robert Motherwell. During Noland’s time at Black Mountain, two particular influences were Albers, whose alleged dogmatism frustrated him but whose methods proved at least an irritant against which to react, and also Ilya Bolotowsky, from whom he learned to appreciate Mondrian’s grid, white ground and schematic use of colour.
A (GI Bill-funded) year in Paris towards the end of the 1940s brought, among other things, first-hand contact with Matisse’s brilliant colour — this, let us remember, was long before the days of affordable, ubiquitous, at least semi-accurate colour reproductions — while relocation to Washington in 1949, and visits New York thereafter, introduced the young artist to first to Morris Louis, then to Helen Frankenthaler. Clement Greenberg became an important ally. The 1960s would, in time, bring friendships with Jules Olitski and Anthony Caro. (Caro’s recent tribute to Noland, perceptive and generous, is here.)
But it was back in the early years of the 1950s when, following Frankenthaler’s lead, Noland first developed an interest in staining raw cotton canvas with clear, diluted pigment which formed the basis of the rest of what turned out to be a highly successful, productive and sustained career.
Later would come variation. After the famous, concentric circles — ‘target’ paintings which could hardly have been a more total refutation of Jasper Johns’ oeuvre — there would be shaped canvases, diamonds, stripes, chevrons, yet more ‘targets’, late flowerings of interest in tonality and mark-making, and what look like amateurish designs for new tartans. The continuity, though, and also the most obvious strength, remained Noland’s extraordinary feeling for colour. The result integrated all the various influences name-checked above, somehow producing from them something that felt clean, new, stripped of distractions and inessentials — a coolly unsentimental, unapologetically beautiful art, neither ironic nor socially engaged, concerned with very little, indeed, except some sort of alchemy of beauty itself.
Yet while some of us may find in that a thoroughly legitimate sphere of interest for visual art, not everyone does. All of which explains why, in recent years, Noland’s reputation has, in some quarters, suffered. True, Noland’s luminous pigment and elegant reserve tend not to attract the full brutal force of near-psychotic hatred so often directed at Greenberg, admittedly mostly by those who’ve never actually read his writing. Noland’s work must, surely, be rather hard to hate. No, the assault on Noland has been marginally more gentle, if no less dogmatic — its weapons condescension, guilt-by-association (it’s that Greenberg thing again) and a slow, certain drift towards curatorial oblivion.
For surely, Noland’s work really does need to be seen in order to function. Art engaged principally with colour, surface and gesture requires more than most that moment of face-to-face confrontation for which the undifferentiated gloss of a printed illustration and the ambient glow of the laptop screen provide no sort of substitute. All of which, finally, explains why I’m not simply engaging in some sort of ritual modesty when I protest, as I am about to do right now, that I simply haven’t seen enough of Noland’s work to say very much more about it.
It’s likely, of course, that the North Carolina Museum of Art, in its long-vanished downtown incarnation, permanently underpopulated and smelling pleasantly of camphor and floor-wax, in which so many of my happier childhood hours were spent, owned a Noland or two — their website, alas, doesn’t stretch to clearing up this point for me — but if so, I don’t remember it. Anyway, during my American phase, I was much more likely to make a bee-line for ancient Egyptian funerary kit or Flemish Old Masters than waste my time on home-grown modernists. Here in London, in contrast, I can’t remember ever having noticed the Nolands apparently stabled at Tate Modern. They would, I suspect, in any event struggle against the big white spaces, the faintly nasty light and unsympathetic hanging that blights displays of the permanent collection there. Most paintings do.
No, there’s only one occasion on which Kenneth Noland’s work made any real impact on me. The year was 1998. A brief trans-Atlantic hop to New York City — as it happened, my first return to the land of my birth quite a while — coincided with the epic Rothko retrospective at the Whitney. After the requisite rituals of mental and spiritual preparation, I duly made my pilgrimage to those two full floors of ultimate High Art sub-sacramental transcendence.
The experience was, almost literally, overwhelming. Having finished reading the J. E. B. Breslin biography of Rothko only hours before, giddy with the moodiness and majesty of some of those paintings, numbed by the radical unfamiliarity of the USA in general and NYC in particular, my head and heart were overloaded. Leaving the Rothko rooms, a quick courtesy-call on the Hoppers downstairs left me startled with the revelation that Hopper’s work is, in fact, rather better in reproduction than real life, where the shoddy quality of the painting proves a fatal distraction from what actually works in those strange, sad images. Nor did I feel particularly attracted by the Whitney’s more prominent offerings that day — for some reason, I’m thinking of Bruce Nauman right now, which may be wrong, but will at least stand as a legible emblem for whatever was actually the case. These, anyway, were the sorts of things running through my mind as I went to look for the exit, the stairs and the relatively unmediated world beyond.
Unfortunately — although one might well take it as evidence of Noland’s subtle curatorial sidelining — the Whitney’s website doesn’t allow me to figure out which Noland it was that I saw there, positioned next to the way to the stairs. Certainly, though, it was one of the ‘target’ paintings — concentric rings, bright colour, plenty of clear open space.
Although I can’t now remember the name of the work, though, the impression it left was unforgettable. Having been coached by Robert Hughes’ criticism — of which I was reading quite a lot at the time — to regard these ‘second generation Abstract Expressionists’ as a waste of time, watered-down and derivative — ‘the beautiful impasse, the last exhalation of symbolist nuance in America, the eloquent sigh of transparent colour that was soon to be a period style’, to crib Hughes’ dismissal of Morris Louis — the actual Noland painting came as the most enormous shock.
Put simply, after Rothko, after Hopper and whatever else the Whitney was showing that day — for context mattered here, as it generally does with me — there was something unforgettably fresh, clean and apparently simple about that Noland painting, something direct and uncomplicatedly strong, that refuted in a moment everything I had thought I knew about Noland and his work. The lack of bombast was welcome. So was the lack of narrative, sentimentality and biographical special pleading. And so was the beauty, man-made yet wholly authentic.
There was, in short, just a moment of powerful conjunction between one individual and a painted image. But although it made quite an impact on me at the time for all sorts of reasons, back in 1998, standing there in that noisy white-walled corridor, contemplating this rather modest canvas and the extent of my own ignorance, I don’t think I really could have put any of these things into words.
Never mind. Today, reading some of the commentary on Noland’s death, I was struck by something written by the artist Walter Darby Bannard in Artforum, back in 1971:
Noland’s is a high art and a modern one — more clarity than abundance, more pressure than expense, more tension than energy, more grace than sensuality. It is a style of cold fire and control. This kind of modernism has faults and its own peculiar risks, but by the hand of art history it is the toughest thing we have now, and our best artists measure themselves against it.
‘Cold fire and control’ — this, perhaps, is the sort of thing I should have praised that day at that Whitney — although ‘more clarity than abundance, more pressure than expense’ are pretty spot-on, too.
As for the reflections on ‘this kind of modernism’, though, have they held up? It’s convenient, I guess, that by swaddling Noland’s work in a protective blanket of art-historical condescension, hiding much of it away and confining the rest into some sort of cramped ghetto of historical specificity, our present-day arts establishment ensures that the comparison between Noland’s modernism and contemporary practice is the sort of comparison that our most prominent artists, if not our best ones, can avoid, at least in the short term. Long term judgements, of course, are another matter entirely — a truism from which those who mourn the passing of another great American artist may, at least, derive a degree of comfort.