New York

Kenneth Noland

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Kenneth Noland’s last show here, in 1983, featured tall, irregularly shaped canvases whose areas of color were applied with various types of painterly expressiveness. As much as new explorations, the shapes seemed allusions to Noland’s own earlier work in irregular polygonal shapes; they seemed, in other words, both a post-Modern reference to classical Modernist icons and a self-referential formalist evolution. The dilemma posed by these two types of statement is equally present in the new work, which is both more familiar and more beautiful than the last, though misgivings and ambiguities remain about its position in the world. It consists of 14 large canvases all bearing a more elongated version of Noland’s familiar chevron icon of twenty years ago, but with a package of post-Modern elements which seem to propose an avenue of transition from hard-edge and color-field work into the ’80s. Unlike the parallel transition from Abstract Expressionist modes that has occurred over the past few years, Noland’s solution does not involve the introduction of pictorial representation. Its formal elements are restrained painterly drips; luxurious luminescent scumbles; translucent overlays; and, above all, knife or trowel strokes in gel medium, either plain or mixed with color, which refer massively to the so-called expressionist brushstroke—almost as massively as in Roy Lichtenstein’s parodies of it. At the same time, Noland’s painterly gestures are opposed or defused by the works geometric format. In all the paintings the division between stripes rules: the strokes in gel, for example, some of which are very long, never extend across a border into an adjacent stripe. They are not, in other words, evocations of expressive freedom. The stroke is allowed to function decoratively, or as a reference, but its traditional iconic content is specifically denied.

In other ways, however, Noland seems to move closer to suggestions of content than in the past. Even in the ’60s, the problem of the content of Noland’s and related work was evident. Many noticed, for example, the formal similarities between this American painting and the Tantric abstraction of India. But the similarity was shrugged off on the grounds that the older work had a specific metaphysical content while the color-field work, supposedly, had no content except “feeling,” “pure color,” and such. Yet this solution was called into question when formalist critics began to attribute qualities of the Sublime to the painting of Noland and others, and to speak, somewhat theosophically, of pure color being received by “higher centers” of the mind—statements similar to those of Tantric practitioners. There seemed finally to be a hidden, almost illicit relationship between color-field painting and certain traditional types of cosmograms. In a sense, what was at issue was a changing style in artists verbal supplements to their works. Barnett Newman, by titles and other types of verbal expression, specified both a sublime and a cosmogonical content to his paintings, which otherwise could very easily have been understood as “contentless” color-field painting or something like it. Noland’s generation was more canny in its verbal supplements, avoiding above all the fruity metaphysics of the Abstract Expressionists, who were often portraying the idea of the First Moment, the fiat lux, the first ordering of potentiality, and so on.

Noland’s new work seems at times to flirt suggestively with the metaphysical content that the critics of the Sublime surreptitiously attributed to it years ago. The beautiful Songs: Three or Four Shades of Blues—Charlie Mingus, 1984, for example, states its chevron lightning-flash like a four-staged Pythagorean cosmogony on a gold ground which alludes both to Byzantine iconism and, even more, because of the geometric abstractions that appear on the ground, to Tantric practice. This type of content, of course, is partly informed by verbal supplements supplied by the artist, and here Noland is customarily restrained, balancing each contentual suggestion with its opposite. One painting that could easily be felt as an abstract modeling of a cosmogonical fiat lux bears the suggestive title Songs: Out of Nowhere, 1984; most of the titles lack this type of metaphysical suggestiveness, however, and the use of a general title to do with music—the prefix “Songs,” and accompanying references to jazz titles, are applied to 12 of the 14 paintings—is a time-honored device for suggesting a purely formalist approach to an art form.

Clearly a major part of the work’s content is Noland’s desire not to commit himself on the status of content. The dangers inherent in this position are that one may fall victim to the accusation of being merely decorative (to which this sumptuous show is very liable), and that, to avoid such an accusation, one may take refuge in the content of the Sublime and the mysticism of pure color. Noland’s special way seems to be to walk the edge in such matters—above all, in this case, the edge between the simple presence of the work and the references it seems to imply. He may in time become known as a master of ambiguity.

Thomas McEvilley