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PRINT March 2010

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Kenneth Noland

THERE ARE SOME PAINTERS who treat a finished canvas as a virginal thing that should remain undisturbed on the wall once placed there. When I made a trip three years ago to Kenneth Noland’s Maine studio, I was surprised to learn that he was not one of them. I was visiting the artist because I wanted to view a circle painting titled Back and Front that he had kept since making it in 1960. After I’d looked at the canvas for a while, I told him I didn’t understand why the top had to be the top. “Well, let’s see,” he said. He sprang from his seat and rotated the canvas a half turn. He talked about it a bit that way, then said, “Let’s try this,” and he gleefully laid the painting on the floor, and we discussed it with the categories top and bottom effectively eradicated. He then proceeded to flip the thing over like a pancake so I could briefly see the verso, which, as the title suggests, is also painted.

Noland’s enthusiastic maneuvering of the canvas during this studio visit surprised me, I suppose because Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried’s rhetoric of modernist opticality had so colonized my perception of his work that I did not anticipate such physical engagement from the artist. This critical colonization was no accident, of course. Noland’s work from the ’60s frequently proved formalist paradigms with great skill, and his signature circles and chevrons in particular exhibit an impressive lexicon of techniques by which a painting might affirm properties that (for Greenberg, at least) are specific to the medium. Throughout these works, Noland’s method of staining raw canvases with acrylic prevents paint from roughening surface complexion with sculptural impasto. No chiaroscuro bloats his bands of unmodulated paint into virtual three-dimensional space, either. Nor do bands or circles overlap, as that might suggest an interior in which objects could move around each other. Generally, both the circles and the chevron bands thwart any illusion of a projecting or receding shape, as they progress sequentially according to studiously inconsistent gradations of size, value, and saturation. Fried’s eventual terminology of “deductive structure” (in which the composition derives from the dimensions of the physical support) usefully explained the circles’ tendency to orbit the geometric center of the canvas, as well as the chevrons’ habit of hanging from the top frame, such that they seem to inhabit the same plane as the material surface.

The compositional rigor of Noland’s painting was, in my opinion, beyond reproach. But the more assiduously self-scrutinizing the work became, and the more those paintings appeared to be deductive of formalist criticism, the more difficult it was to connect them with formalism’s mission to counteract the culture industry through processes of withdrawal or negation (not least because some formalist critics disliked the terminology of “negation”). And that is unfortunate. Now that we are several decades down the hill of popular culture, and we’ve all gotten a better idea of how frenzied and mind-numbing kitsch can be, the formalist advocacy of work that might give the viewing subject a place for the exercise of sustained and quiet attention doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

That said, to see Noland’s paintings as nothing more than exemplars of Greenbergian self-reference is to leave out a great deal of his project. Some scholars (particularly Shepherd Steiner) have recently noted Noland’s frequent reference in interviews to the writings of Wilhelm Reich (the artist went through Reichian analysis for about ten years); it could be, in fact, that those circle paintings developed out of a far funkier interest in personal auras of energy and the holistic self-awareness of the subject. Indeed, when I met with Noland, his mode of speech tended toward that of the ’60s hipster that he was, as a former Black Mountain College student whose interest in jazz persisted along with his interest in pure form. When he asked if there were any publications of mine he should look at, I explained that my article about Op art was about to appear in this magazine. “Far out,” he said, nodding rhythmically to the Gil Evans album he was playing for us as mood music.

Meanwhile, a few of Noland’s paintings, like Back and Front, did approach the idea of autonomy, but in ways that rejected notions of opticality. The verso composition of Back and Front is partly visible from the recto: Some paint seeping through from the back is visible on the left side of the composition. But what I saw when Noland flipped the painting over looks different from what one might expect after looking at it from the front. In other words, the painting tells us that there is a back, but its full character remains secret. The viewer perceives that there is something behind what is seen, but it is off-limits. Works like these—and Noland was in the process of making more in this mode when I visited him—suggest that a painting could sometimes articulate the necessity of withholding visual information. This painting implies autonomy as a sort of nonappearance—a negation that retreats from visuality but remains specific to painting. At the same time, this version of medium-specificity, which assigns a discretionary essence to painting, serves to allegorize a subjectivity that cannot be co-opted. Behind Kenneth Noland, and behind some of his paintings, there was much more that we are only beginning to think about. It is a shame he won’t be around to witness our realization of that.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University.