PRINT November 1971

Noland’s New Paintings

MOST OF THE BEST RECENT painting is abstract, and we are asked to accept as high art configurations of simple things which retain their identity because they are not subordinated to depiction. One obstacle to the proper reception of what is wrongly called “formalist” art writing is its insistence on mere visual fact: a line, a colored patch, a smooth surface, the edge of a rectangle. These things are not intrinsically interesting, and when they come up in art writing their newfound weight can seem dumbfounding or silly. But there are those who should know better, members of the art public who are committed to abstract art but pin the “Ivory Tower” label on any art writer who tries to come to literal terms with abstract painting. They belittle the importance given innocent facts and changes which have nothing to do with the “real world,” and they long for noble and heroic attributes to spring full blown from the reluctant head of abstract painting, spelled out clearly and simply like a billboard proclaiming a Biblical movie. This attitude was the curse of Abstract Expressionism, and the genesis of Pop Art.

But the serious art writer, who writes about art and not about his expectations or about the context of art, knows enough to stick to what can be pointed to and described, to get down some of the visual facts and dynamics of a work and hope a flavor or feeling comes across. He knows if he doesn’t do this he will not be writing about art. Furthermore, he sees quality arising only from the artist’s medium, so that the character, disposition, and selection of simple visual elements have artistic, and thus human, importance relative to the quality of the work.

With this in mind, I say that it is an important fact that Kenneth Noland (at the André Emmerich Gallery, October 9th until November 3rd, 1971) has put aside the horizontal stripes and bands which have made up his paintings for the past few years and has turned to a composition of crisscross stripes and bands, often with a stained and abraded, or “smoky,” ground. He has kept all of these paintings vertical, usually rather thin, and on the whole smaller than his previous work, and he has varied the character of his colors by adding gel, varnish, “pearlessence,” and such. These are big changes and their effect, in sum, is increased complexity of the picture and increased “interactability” of the elements of the picture. A move to complexity is a move to greater strength if quality is maintained. Though many of the devices in these paintings are tentative, that quality has been maintained and seems to come across on the same terms as it used to.

I have often written on these pages about the problems of integration of pictorial elements on a flat surface, and in one instance (“Notes on American Painting of the Sixties,” Artforum, January 1970) about the special problems Noland had with his colored, horizontal stripes and bands. These elements faced mutual isolation because they are visually very separate; Noland had to answer, in paint, implicit questions about the relationship of extremely disassociated parts of the painting. Some of Noland’s pictures, particularly the complex, high-value contrast paintings done around 1967, give in under the burden of stripes and bands too numerous and individual to make a whole picture on his chosen terms. Noland beat the problem with a variety of adjustments: adjustment of value (elements of similar value are less individual); adjustment of band width (extreme variety of size of the elements creates dominant and subdominant groups, simplifying the effect of division); and by adjustment of the width of the canvas. In “Notes” I wrote that extreme width of the picture defeated isolation because the remoteness of the edge concealed the fact that the colored bands were separate entities. That was a mistake. Actually, horizontal extension was another adjustment, meant to bring the limits into conformity with the rest of the picture by stretching to the precise point of coalescence, not to a random point of visual obfuscation.

The new paintings still depend on adjustment, but less literally, less for mechanics and more for art. This is not to say that these paintings are “more art” than those preceding. But this move to greater complexity, though it is not yet in full use at full strength, is a regrouping for a new attack which casts out old obstacles. The change to interwoven elements was weighted with hidden problems. Suppose Noland had gone directly from the horizontal to the interwoven by shuffling the stripes and bands into a highly colored pattern of squares and rectangles of various sizes. These new elements would run a high risk of mutual isolation across the resistant flat surface because the “checkerboarding” of the surface would hamper one color from carrying over to most of the others, and this would be compounded by complexity. This would be especially serious for Noland’s art, which is built on color, because color relationship is most sensitive to separation. Yellow and greenish yellow appear quite different if together; separated by another color they may seem the same, or at least the effect of their difference will be much reduced.

But the new paintings aim for complexity and efficiency. To avoid a closed-up surface Noland created an illusion of openness by splitting the elements of the paintings into two camps: relatively thin, usually highly colored stripes, and a usually soft, randomly modulated ground. Noland’s solution here is like Hofmann’s (see “Hofmann’s Rectangles,” Artforum, June 1969): the ground hangs back, affecting open atmosphere behind the hard, thin stripes, which run across each other and across the ground, reaching out through the apparent openness.

However, Noland never has been willing to commit himself to a system which exploits a clear illusion of depth. If he had done so in the “smoky” pictures he would have forced aimlessness on an orderly art. Unlike Hofmann’s backgrounds in the rectangle pictures, Noland’s “smoky” backgrounds are truly random; the modulations are not composed, nor are they meant to be. If Noland let them stand wholly behind the stripes they would have no internal reason to stop at the edge of the canvas, and the difficulty is aggravated in proportion to the degree of modulation. To counter this self-induced problem, Noland introduced a subtle device which hedges, or compromises, an absolute illusion of depth. The background of the “smoky” picture seems continuous because it has the same value and random marking throughout. But in each of these pictures, one way or another, this continuity is denied by a variation of hue which often cannot be seen until more obvious things have been taken in. China Blue, illustrated here, is not the best of the “smoky” pictures, but it shows this variation quite clearly despite the loss in reproduction: there is a hazy, horizontal reddish band between the two reddish horizontal stripes above and the yellowish horizontal stripe below. This “blocking-in,” filling a space in reference to the enclosing stripes, appears to be on the same plane as the stripes, and denies the recession maintained by the value-surface continuum. The paintings come across like windows with panes of softly colored glass framed by bright mullions, and point ahead to the extraordinary effects of light Noland gets into some of his very recent unshown paintings.

Although the “smoky” pictures are all very beautiful, there is some weakness in the tentativeness of the ground. Noland’s is an exact art of precise adjustment and ambiguity rests there uneasily. But they come off anyway, at a high and even level, which bears witness to the tremendous pressure Noland puts on, and the real adaptability of the new style. Even size and shape come in to help; the thin vertical is a cautious shape, aiding coherence by “stacking,” and by our innate perception of verticals as tight units; and the modest (for Noland) size and relative lack of variety of size marks the careful handling of strong and unfamiliar combinations.

Noland has also been making pictures of less modulated surfaces which hearken back to his horizontal paintings. June is an extraordinary painting, if only as a tour de force, bringing an inert sheet of orange to life with a few colored stripes along the edges. Again we see how much Noland’s art depends on deliberation, choice, and precision. The shape and size of the canvas, relative to the value and saturation of the orange field and the placement of the edging stripes, strikes an exact balance of “see-ability,” so that to see the stripes must be deliberate, but not to see them, at least peripherally, is impossible. The background comes up close and at the very edge is treated to some Olitski-like echoes, very subtle and hard to see, to keep it trim. The interweaving of the stripes keeps to the corners and does not interfere as design, as it does in some of the “smoky” pictures. The placement (about two inches apart), the size difference (about two to one), and coloration (pale pinkish yellow, or “cream,” and a very grayish green of a medium value) of the stripes along the right margin—in contrast to the more highly colored, similar sized, almost contiguous stripes along the other margins—twists the space and lifts the painting into art, and gives that eerie quality of feeling rising from intrinsically dumb materials, the same sense of human intervention which surrounds Caro’s sculpture. June is not as lush or as beautiful as the best of the “smoky” pictures and it doesn’t take the same risks. But it is a terrific painting.

Aries Solo is one of a number of paintings done somewhat later than the others. It represents the third stylistic thread in the show and indicates a transition from the others, which are predominantly thin stripes with broad colored areas, to a more recent unshown species of “all-band” or “light-shaft” pictures. Aries Solo is a better painting than it looks in reproduction, but it is not without severe internal problems. The picture has too much or too little, according to your point of view. There is too much saturated color and too little functional integration. It falls into the subtle snare so neatly skirted by China Blue, June, and the others like them—that of highly charged, side-by-side color areas getting in each other’s way. The point of trouble is the large central area. It is too strong, too intrusive, too “forward,” and it makes everything else crowd together shoulder-to-shoulder. The impedance of the relationship enervates the picture; it seems overloaded and understructured. These remarks could be applied even more strongly to another picture in the show, April’s Equal. With all this, these are pretty good pictures. They are better than most of what you will see this season. But they do not come up to Noland at his best.

I have not said much about the “finishing touches” of Noland’s new work, and I barely mentioned the amazing color, partly because these things are too much for a review, but particularly because they only come over strongly through the senses and feelings. Verbal descriptions and reproductions, even if accurate, show little of these qualities of touch and presence, and when you see the actual paintings these things come across slowly but stick tight: the changing color of a stripe as it crosses the canvas, a shift of hue across a stretch of similar value, the contrast of qualities of paint and surface. I have been content here to bring up a few of the grosser facts of composition on which these finer things depend.

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. When Noland fails, his failure has the character of the style: the painting turns decorative or thin; the tension snaps and evaporates; an overload of color smothers feeling; or some unneeded thing breaks up the perfect rhythm. But this happens seldom, and when he is “on” there is nothing better to be seen. This is a really beautiful show.

Walter D. Bannard