New York

Kenneth Noland

Andre Emmerich Gallery downtown

The paintings of Kenneth Noland have always been very “fast,” to use Michael Fried’s adjective. They must be grasped at once, in a single visual gulp. Otherwise they are likely to escape entirely and leave an impression of skimpiness.

The six new works Noland exhibited suggested a slowing down, a kind of energy crisis within a formal approach which was nonetheless very efficient. Their origin lies in problems Noland has been grappling with throughout his career.

Noland has always been concerned with bringing the viewer’s sense of what the picture showed into line with what it was. His paintings were speedy insofar as they eliminated the gap—the sense of a stage or frame—between the painting as an object in the room and its nature as an image.

Noland has had difficulties achieving this end. The circles and chevrons which first made him famous seemed either to round hyperactively about themselves or to streak off into the promise of an infinite space beyond. Of course, both image types were bound in by the frame, a necessary but disappointing expedient. Noland’s best and fastest canvases, from the late ’60s, grouped thin stripes horizontally at the top and bottom edges of friezelike rectangles. The large scale of the canvases kept the viewer from noticing the terminations of the stripes at the distant edge. The stripes seemed like a test sample of something that sped on forever, like a Bonneville racer at the horizon.

A hostile critic remarked at the time of those paintings’ appearance that they resembled designer linen patterns. Noland’s subsequent paintings have resembled dishtowels: they add vertical stripes to the horizontals and turn the corners into plaids. Now Noland has taken a fresh approach entirely. He has taken a page from the cool precepts of Frank Stella—to whom he is often compared—and shaped his canvases. The new canvases are rectangles with an end lopped off or, in two cases, they are simply irregular polygons. Noland tosses sashes or widening bands of color across the canvas diagonally, suggesting receding roads or rivers and controlling that most sensitive area of the modern painting, the corner. The profiled bands definitely imply a deep space behind, but they find an echo in the longitudinal edges of the canvas. Surface treatments taken from Jules Olitski—with Noland and Stella, the third member of the commonly invoked trio—also tie the bands to the surface. Noland has speckled and sprayed his canvas, overlapping layers of color to form the bands, and so slowed down the recession of the forms into space by emphasizing the surface.

The result is less satisfying than it ought to be because the control of color is weaker here than in previous Nolands. The sashes, chromatically, are often either shrill, or else listless. Also, the framing of the canvas seems to have resulted from cropping after the fact rather than from any integral notion of each painting. The most successful work, Mantle, is one that retains the rectangle. How much Noland has changed is indicated by the stately, slow sense this canvas leaves; the bands of color here are like slow muddy rivers. The problem with such slowness is that what the painting fails to deliver on first glimpse is not made up for by long looking. Unlike the slow study that an Olitski, say, may encourage, these simple paintings have neither speed nor richness.

Phil Patton