New York

Kenneth Noland

Salander-O'Reilly Galleries

If, at the beginning of the ’60s, Kenneth Noland seemed to be riding the crest of history, with Clement Greenberg celebrating the artist’s early efforts as the apotheosis of recent American painting, today his endeavor looks decidedly more parochial. Noland borrowed his stain technique from Helen Frankenthaler, but discarded her gestural calligraphy. As with Frankenthaler, Noland’s best paintings are animated by an unabashed estheticism. His early targets, with their simple concentric rings of paint stained directly into unprimed canvas, enabled color to breathe with a heretofore unprecedented immediacy. Though his project in some ways prefigured Minimalism, Noland’s early apologists took pains to distinguish the eminently pictorial status of his paintings from the heretical "theatricality”—the emphasis on the painting’s status as a tactile object—that would later prompt Michael Fried to dismiss Minimalism as yet another resurgence of the familiar dadaist impulse. Indeed, Noland’s mandarin single-mindedness was aimed more at liberating esthetic qualities than at subverting pictorial convention.

Today, Noland’s unadulterated formalism seems ideologically unpalatable to almost everyone. In fact, it is difficult to think of an artist of generally acknowledged stature whose project seems more irredeemably outré. Yet once the rarefied nature of his endeavor is acknowledged, one can’t help but be struck by the breathtaking coloristic immediacy of his work from the late ’50s and early ’60s. The enormous expanse of bright, saturated red in Untitled, 1963, is imbued with a palpable warmth that is an argument in itself for the innovation of stain painting as an art historical event. What this miniretrospective makes painfully clear, however, is that, like Willem de Kooning, Noland is strapped with a relatively inconsequential late style. While de Kooning’s myth is large enough to support a lot of flab, Noland’s recent work is a burden that the artist will not carry so easily.

The development of Noland’s work has been eminently logical; extending the rationale of the stain, whereby color becomes one with the support, he now employs plastic strips where the color is literally embedded in manufacture. At the same time, he allows process to register as squeegeelike marks visible in built-up translucent paint. Yet where an artist like Frank Stella has reinvented himself stylistically while retaining an ideologically consistent position, Noland has failed to make old concerns speak out a new.

Doors: Panes, 1988, a recent work in which three near-valued, but distinctly hued bands of blue are topped by a single same-sized black bar, reveals Noland to be the subtle colorist he always was. Yet like any number of exquisitely self-conscious late exercises included in the show, the work is all virtuosity and no urgency. The recent paintings answer precisely the criteria Greenberg had in mind when he supplied the word “kitsch” as the negative counterterm to his great abstract juggernaut.

Jack Bankowsky