PRINT Summer 1969

Recent Work by Kenneth Noland

FOR ABOUT TWO YEARS NOW Kenneth Noland has been making paintings which consist of a number of horizontal bands of color, usually of different thicknesses, suspended above one another—almost always with intervals of raw canvas between them—within rectangular formats whose height-to-width ratios are rarely less than one to two and are sometimes as much as one to twelve or even more. (In Streak, reproduced here, the ratio is just under one to five.) A selection from among the first such paintings was shown at the, Emmerich Gallery in November, 1967; while five superb canvases recently on view at the Lawrence Rubin Gallery exemplify some of the directions which Noland’s work has taken the past year and a half.

The most remarkable of the Rubin Gallery paintings is probably the largest, Via Token. A broad expanse of light ochre fills the entire canvas except for two nine-inch-high tracts at the top and bottom, each of which is occupied by three equal bands of (reading away from the ochre middle) purple, pink and red. (It goes without saying that all color notations given here are at best approximations.) What in particular is remarkable is that we are made to see the ochre expanse itself as a further, seventh band—one which like the others is twenty feet long but which unlike them is almost seven feet high. By “band” I mean not a type of shape so much as another kind of entity altogether, one which is both naturally unenclosed and essentially directional in ways that a shape, any shape, simply is not. There is of course a plain sense in which the ochre expanse in Via Token just is a certain shape, i.e., a particular horizontal rectangle. But my point is that we are made to see that solid rectangle of color as something else: a radically abstract entity whose essence consists, not in its boundedness, and not in the portion of the painting’s surface which it covers, but in its unimpeded lateral extension across the plane of that surface. The sense in which the relatively narrow bands of color in this and other paintings are not (or are not essentially) shapes is, I think, apparent, at least in front of the paintings themselves: it is as though they essentialize lateral extension as such, as though they are nothing but that lateralness, that extension. The special triumph of Via Token is that we are made to see an expanse of color which taken alone could hardly be more inert or wall-like in exactly those terms.

Via Token is not the only recent painting by Noland in which a relatively very broad central band occupies almost the entire canvas. Streak, also in the Rubin Gallery show, is another instance of this, though the actual proportions of that picture make the salmon-reddish middle seem more naturally bandlike from the start. Both paintings exemplify a new level of engagement with the great “decorative” painting of the past and perhaps with Matisse himself: as if in pictures like these the qualities of unbrokenness, uniform intensity and sheer breadth of color that one finds within shapes and areas in Matisse’s art are themselves re-created by, or as, lateral extension alone. And because they are re-created—made radically abstract—in this way the paintings that result are profoundly anti-“decorative” in essence.

Noland’s bands of color would not be what they are—they would not have the properties here attributed to them—if they were not made of color. And by virtue of those properties, which is to say by essentializing lateral extension as I have claimed they do, Noland’s bands make color present to us in a new way. One might say that they make color present to us, not just as lateral and extended, but as a new abstract modality of lateralness and extension: a modality which we are almost—but not literally—able to describe in terms of differences in direction or relative velocity or strength of flow among the bands of color that compose a given picture. At any rate, differences of color, like differences of breadth, among the bands make themselves felt in something approaching those terms. And that is felt in turn as reinforcing the differentness or separateness or apartness of one color from another—if not as establishing difference of color as such on new and so to speak more physical grounds—with the result that each color in a given picture assumes what I think of as unprecedented autonomy relative to all the others. In the first of his horizontal band pictures, such as those shown in 1967, Noland often emphasized the fact of that autonomy by using large numbers of distinct and, it seemed, disparate colors in a single canvas. One was continually struck, first, by the sheer multiplicity of colors in a given picture—a multiplicity which might have been no greater numerically than that of a Louis stripe painting but which because of the felt autonomy of all the colors was far more perspicuous—and second, by what can perhaps be called the abstract arbitrariness of individual colors, by which I mean the felt depth of that autonomy. (It is tempting to compare this aspect of Noland’s art with the kind of freedom from certain paradigms of rightness, absolute economy and internal necessity which Pollock achieved through and for line in his all-over drip paintings of 1947–50.) The above can be summed up by the claim that in these paintings the singularity of colors—a singularity as absolute, in Noland’s hands, as that of persons—was insisted upon, and made self-evident, as never before.

All this entailed special risks, above all the risk that the colors in a given picture might make themselves felt as too disparate, autonomous, arbitrary—as disruptive, almost explosive—and the picture as a whole become virtually torn apart by the concurrence within its limits of irreconcilable energies and events. The most emphatically anarchic of Noland’s early horizontal band pictures opened themselves to the danger of being seen less as paintings than as spectacular, if in an obvious sense pictorial, phenomena.

Noland may or may not have consciously recognized this danger, if in fact I am right that it was one. But his paintings of the past eighteen months—those I have seen—escape it completely. In pictures like Via Token and Streak this is due both to the use of relatively few colors and to the broadening of the middle band, which together quiet or slow down the painting as a whole. (These steps entail their own risks—that the picture may become inert, “decorative,” “minimal,” an equivocal object instead of a convincing painting. And between the literalness of an object and that of a phenomenon, which itself may be thought of as a special sort of object, there is nothing to choose. In my remarks on Via Token it is aspects of the overcoming of objecthood I have tried to describe.) In other recent paintings, among them the Rubin Gallery’s Via Love Leap, Via Flow and Via Shadow, Noland has employed a wide range of hues in an extremely narrow range of values very near white, thereby securing certain kinds of pictorial coherence—or avoiding certain kinds of incoherence—through the traditional resource of close valuing, while establishing that coherence or avoidance of incoherence where (with the exception of a few paintings by Monet) it had never before been located. The result is something like a new world of color: as though the separateness or apartness that characterizes the relations among individual colors in the early horizontal band paintings now also characterizes Noland’s use of “white” color generally.

Michael Fried