PRINT November 1967

Kenneth Noland’s New Paintings

IN HIS LATEST PAINTINGS, Kenneth Noland is forcing an encounter with pure color to a pitch where, in my experience, one is either repelled by a given painting and blocks the experience, or else one closes with it and lets the experience take over. I am not talking here of the countless times one quashes a painful coloristic dazzle simply because it proffers nothing but its unique power of irritation—the experiencing or not experiencing of Noland’s new paintings is not of this order. It should be stressed however, that in his latest paintings, Noland is exploiting optical dazzle and illusionism to a new and important degree. (Larry Poons is the only other painter who comes to mind as an artist who possesses a fine control over this kind of illusionism and who uses it to powerful effect.)

My immediate reaction on seeing Noland’s latest paintings was to become aware of a struggle: the force of color made one want instantly to stand back and have contemplative time to cope with and temper the impact of color, but at the same time the force of color was also coercing one into accepting the painting at its purest and most non-contemplative level. In order to delay experiencing the painting, to put something between oneself and the experience of color, one has to strain and focus on the look of the painting, its appearance, but this means seeing the painting merely as a collection of bands, which is flatly unrewarding since the effect irresistibly suggests textile designs, awnings, mattress material, etc. However, to do this, to actually focus on the appearance of the painting, its scale and the proportions of bands to format, is almost physically impossible on two counts. First, the brightness and optical dazzle of each band of color make it extremely hard, even painful, to attempt an overall stable reading of the stripes—the wider color bands seem to explode and spill over their actual dimensions and the razor-thin ones keep overlapping and snapping together like telegraph wires. Second, to obtain an overall reading means putting a large distance between oneself and the canvas and since the paintings almost all run to 18 and 20 feet long (in some cases longer) it is rarely possible to find enough room in a gallery or studio space to manage this.

Roughly then, this is the initial impact of No-land’s paintings; they offer no slow savoring, and one either accepts a precipitous and engulfing encounter with sheer, brilliant color, or else one can, by certain eye adjustments, consciously limit the experience of these paintings, that is look at the paintings but in much the same way as one looks at the banal textiles that they resemble. This response, the sense of having to chose between accepting or rejecting the painting is central to the experience of these paintings; it is not new to Noland’s work, but rather it is here consciously exploited and heightened.1 Noland’s paintings, to the extent that one can say paintings are about anything, are about the’ presenting of an untrammeled experience of color. In these recent works, the degree to which Noland has forced a certain way of seeing color differs significantly from those he exhibited in his last show. I should say here that I think certain of Noland’s newest canvases are magnificent; they hold their own with his finest work. They also possess something new, a quality that I can so far only describe as “forcing a certain way of seeing color,” and I want to discuss here two main areas which I feel have special bearing on this question.

The first area, then, centers around the general question of the relation of these paintings to the elongated diamond-shaped canvases that Noland has been making intermittently over the past two years. Central to this question is the role of the actual, physical shape of the canvas in both the diamond canvases and in the latest paintings, and how the shape affects color and the way in which one sees color. The second area centers around the question of how the bare canvas, the actual neutral canvas “color,” functions in these paintings, how this differs from his earlier paintings, and how it alters one’s experience of the quality of the colors in the recent work.

Michael Fried has pointed out that in the elongated diamond-shaped canvases, Noland unequivocally acknowledged the shape of the support by running the color bands parallel to one or the other pair of sides. This open acknowledgment of the canvas shape represented, as Fried stressed, a new and significant decision on Noland’s part.2 It had the effect of aligning depicted shape absolutely with that of the physical shape of the canvas. With the diamond-shaped canvases, one can no longer perceive color in terms of bands of color that go to make up a motif, such as a target or chevron; one can no longer see color as a motif and simultaneously savor and weigh the separable hues against the overall scale and shape of the canvas. With the diamond canvases one perceives color simply in terms of radiant lengths of differing hue ranked contiguously one against the other, and what holds and organizes color is the actual physical shape of the canvas.

For the most part the effect of these canvases is that of a sharp blast of color which seems caught and pincered by the thinness and pointedness of the format (Fried has aptly described certain of these paintings as appearing to be “needle-thin”). To my eye, there is always, with the diamond canvases, an initial shock of pleasure at the radiance of color, and a shock too at how strange these paintings are as paintings. But somehow the sharpness of the impact of color is in no way commensurate with the actual sliver-thinness of the elongated diamond shape; there is no analogous experience I can describe to illustrate this, except to say that I have the uncomfortable sensation with many of the diamond canvases that they d not, almost literally, possess enough room to accommodate the blast of color and the kind of opt cal modeling that the color engenders. Moreover, in most of them, the particular tilt of the bands color, and their shortness, make for a marked opt cal twisting and slipping of the bands; or rathe one’s eye, in trying to focus on the colors an gauge their relative hues, is always slipping off the edge of the canvas, propelled there by the tilt the bands, and this makes looking at these paintings a basically unsatisfying and unstable experience. (Not always however, and I want to stye: this. Certain of them are very fine, for instance, recent painting called Ado.)

In purely diagrammatic terms the diamond car vases can be read as an obliquely-viewed square That is, the actual bands of color can convert the diamond-shape into an oblique reading of a square. To hold such a reading, however, is virtually impossible, and this is part of the visual bewilderment of these paintings, that they so strongly suggest an illusion of three dimensionality whit is simultaneously denied by the physical present of the painting. What is crucial here, in the col text of Noland’s recent paintings, is the compelling illusion of speed, of an interrupted sweep of color that the bands of color produce when read diagrammatically. In several of Noland’s earliest Target paintings he ran a brushed, spurting aureole of color around the outermost of the concentric rings and one had the strong sensation of depicted velocity, a rendering of the traces of speed thrown off by the spinning bands.3 The illusion r speeding color in the diamond canvases is of a quite different order and appears to be induced by one own eyes as they irresistibly follow the tilt of the color bands.

When I said earlier that Noland’s latest painting seem like literal and visual extensions of the diamond canvases, I meant this in a profoundly positive sense. It is as if Noland has transformed pinched and charged activity of the diamond paintings into something equally charged but infinite expansive. One can see the transformation at experimental level, I think, in the series of long rectangular paintings which Noland began making at the end of 1965. (Noland showed two of the canvases in his last show, along with four much smaller paintings of a similar format.) Fried has observed of these canvases that: “. . . the rectangle are too long and proportionally too narrow, to be experienced as discrete shapes. Instead, confronted head on, they seem to extend almost beyond the limits of our field of vision, to become nothing but extension, to only end up being rectangular; approached from the side (their length makes this inviting) what is striking is not their rectangularity but the speed with which that rectangle—or rather, the speed with which the colored bands—appears to diminish in perspective recession.”4 I quote Fried’s description of these paintings because it so accurately, I think, recreates one’s experience of them. I did not find these paintings to be successful, however, precisely because it was only on my viewing the canvases from an oblique angle that color was fully galvanized, seeming to skim in sudden perspective recession. Seen frontally, and this is important, the spatial and illusionistic qualities of color assert themselves forcefully, which makes the length of the bands seem highly arbitrary. The paintings produced the effect somewhat of an “envelope” of color, the dazzle and illusionistic modeling which the colors gave off suddenly being sealed in at the vertical edges and coming to an abrupt stop. Perhaps the most unresolved question that these canvases raised was, “Why should intense sheer color stop where it stopped?” On the other hand, the most potent quality suggested by these paintings was the possibility of being totally absorbed and transfixed by the experience of color. In his recent paintings, I think Noland has come nearer to realizing this than I would ever have thought possible.

For the moment it seems that Noland’s move to these new paintings has meant his sacrificing certain things; I started out by saying that one is either repelled by the paintings or else closes with them and lets color take over. In part this has to do with intensified optical dazzle and illusionism, so that the quality of color in these paintings differs significantly from the quality of color in his earlier paintings; what was exquisite and sensuous in his earlier use of color has evolved into something altogether more searing. In a sense too, the possibility of savoring relative hues, and subtle tonal variations is no longer part of the direct experience of these paintings. Noland has spoken of wanting “more freedom to exercise the arbitrariness of color,”5 and certainly in these paintings he is exploring new ways of presenting colors so that they may be seen freed from understandable combinations and the comfortableness of associations.

I want to conclude with a few observations about Noland’s use of white canvas in his latest paintings because, as I have already pointed out, the actual canvas color, or the intervals of bare canvas, functions differently in them, and in fact, the success or failure of the paintings is geared more finely around the use of the canvas than ever before.

Morris Louis and Noland are the two painters who stand out in my mind as having not only dared to use vast expanses of empty white canvas, but also to have used it to supreme effect. Noland’s use of bare white canvas began to assume a more circumscribed and precisely functioning role in the series of chevron paintings from 1964 where the chevrons run laterally across a square diamond-shaped canvas (as opposed to the horizontally or vertically elongated diamond canvases that I have already discussed). In these chevron paintings the function of the empty canvas is brought sharply into focus by Noland’s having, on several occasions, used bands of white paint; this somehow has the effect of heightening the tension of what one is actually seeing when one looks at the diffused radiance of the bare canvas, as opposed to the particular hue of a band of color. One could say that in these paintings the pictorial quality of the bare canvas shifted from its role of vital, effulgent space which both separated and surrounded color, and began instead to function much more as a sharply delimited area of color. We see this in an absolute sense in those paintings where there is no longer a perceptible, separable color-motif, and where Noland has aligned bands of color with the actual shape of the canvas, i.e. in the elongated diamond canvases and the long rectangular paintings discussed above. In both these series of paintings Noland occasionally made bands of bare canvas function as white. The effect produced by the presence of a band of “canvas color”—that is, white free of white pigment—is that of heightening the saturation of the colors which run contiguous with it. This in turn engenders a heightened illusionism; the colors seeming to pulse and stand out in space. I mentioned earlier that I found the function of color in the long rectangular paintings to be at its most ambiguous and unresolved. On the one hand the paintings forced a new kind of concentration; the extreme length of the bands of color made one focus on color locally, but on the other hand, the length of the color bands denied the possibility of comfortable focus on a particular area of color and one’s eyes were irresistibly pulled out to the edges of the canvas. One was offered then, an extraordinary encounter with color: color seemed to hang shimmering in space, but this illusion flattened out and stopped abruptly as one’s eyes travelled off the end of the canvas. This made sustained looking at these canvases, for me anyway, an unresolved and unmoving experience. Alternatively one could take an angled view of the paintings, which minimized the illusionism engendered by the color bands, color seeming more dense and palpable. Seen in this way, color gives the impression of a hurtling recessional rush, and one can, in a sense, understand color better; it does something, and the activity is easier to concentrate on. However the impression of speed as the bands recede emphasizes the arbitrariness of where and why the bands of color stop, which in turn makes one aware of the incongruity of viewing the canvas in this way.

To an amazing extent Noland manages in his newest paintings, to alleviate, if not remove altogether, these problems inherent in the rectangular paintings. What is striking in these new paintings, is that the function of bare canvas is of the utmost importance, yet its actual perceptible area is so narrow that it is extremely difficult to distinguish. The paintings offer an exhilarating, even transfixing illusion of limpid colors that are suspended in space, the bands held there by their sheer intensity and by an indefinable sensation of ceaseless, headlong speed. The sensation is absolutely absorbing and one’s vision is engulfed in the experience of pure color. I was no longer troubled by the arbitrariness of the sudden stopping of color, the question of why it stopped where it did was no longer relevant. For one thing, and this is extremely important, the two vertical ends of the canvas have become totally neutral and open in a way that I have never experienced in a painting before, so that I had the sensation of color exiting into real space in an utterly unobtrusive and seemingly natural way. I had the conviction that color in certain of these paintings, notably Via Blues and Graded Exposure, could extend indefinitely, and that it stopped where it did was not of importance. Several reasons for the sensation of the “openness” of the vertical ends suggest themselves, though none fully explain it. The bands of color Noland uses—ranging in width from extremely broad ones (as in Graded Exposure) to those of a razor-thinness—are each separated by a thin line of bare canvas which is almost imperceptible—that is, it reads like an interval where there is no color, or rather, where there is no reflected light of any sort. The interval of bare canvas does two crucial things: it allows for the individual bands of color to give an incredibly sharp illusion of their standing out, free in space; that is, the interval makes room for this kind of optical modeling. The interval of canvas also serves to render the vertical ends of the paintings absolutely neutral by bleeding off into our space, that is, by forming a kind of opaque “channel” which merges with our space. This allows the implied sweep of color and the optical modeling of the bands of color to continue outward without suddenly being flattened and clipped off at the edges (as in the rectangular paintings I have discussed). This reinforces the feeling that color could continue indefinitely.

Noland has won a new freedom for his painting. In order that color might be seen on its purest and most essential level, he has found a convincing way of letting color itself dictate the shape of its physical carrier, in other words, he has arrived at the most neutral and self-canceling of shapes—a rectangle that can be infinitely extended.6 What is profoundly moving and also paradoxical about these new canvases is this: that an experience of color which seems so extreme and so absolutely engulfing should nevertheless offer such a wealth of different sensations and perceptions—things that I have only begun to touch on here.

Jane Harrison Cone



1. This momentary feeling of wanting to be able to guard one’s senses from being engulfed by an experience, which is so strong with Noland’s latest paintings, is, I feel, something like what Michael Fried has written about in his essay “Anthony Caro and Kenneth Noland: Some Notes On Not Composing,” Lugano Review, 1/3–4, pp 198–206. He describes the absoluteness of the demands that a sculpture by Caro makes on the viewer, and one’s temptation because of this, to step back and, in Fried’s words: “distance the sculpture . . . destroy the intimacy it threatens to create, to pull out.” I want to acknowledge here, in general, the debt that my observations on Noland’s painting owe to Michael Fried’s writings; I am not only referring to Fried’s writings on Noland but also to his general discussions about the significance of shape as such and color as such in painting today (in particular his essays “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, V:10, and Jules Olitski, Paintings 1963–1967, Washington, 1967).

2. See Fried’s discussion of the function of shape in Noland’s paintings which is incorporated in his essay “Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” Artforum, V:3, p. 20, 21.

3. See my discussion of this in “On Color in Kenneth Noland’s Paintings,” Art International, LX/5, pp. 36–38.

4. “Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” Artforum, V:3, p. 21. See also a discussion of this aspect of Noland’s work in Rosalind Krauss’s article “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd,” Artforum IV:9, p. 26.

5. Noland interviewed by Al McConagha, Minneapolis Tribune, April, 1966.

6. “Self-canceling” is a word used by Noland. Ibid.