New York

Kenneth Noland, Morning Span, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 8' 7“ x 12' 10”.

Kenneth Noland, Morning Span, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 8' 7“ x 12' 10”.

Kenneth Noland

Mitchell-Innes & Nash | Uptown

Kenneth Noland, Morning Span, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 8' 7“ x 12' 10”.

Once upon a time we accepted the dialectical “begats” of modernism on simple faith: how Abstract Expressionism emerged from the academic regionalism (both urban and Midwestern) of the 1930s; how the gestural Abstract Expressionism of the ’40s was replaced by the Color Fields and stains of the ’50s and ’60s; how, quickly enough, these developments led to a figurative Pop art, which, in turn, forced Minimalism and Conceptualism into bloom. By our present moment, we have come full cycle, churning out new representationalisms as if those fifty years of American abstraction had never happened. This ignorance allows us to see the works in “Kenneth Noland, Paintings, 1958–1968” afresh, free of the contextualizing buttress of the formalist criticism that once legitimized post-painterly abstraction.

So what do we see today? We see bright, optically stimulating work of often singing color—and, on occasion, sour dissonance—fixed within a constrictive, symmetrical format; we see paintings that often induce the effect of a luminous “vacuity”; we see beautiful paintings seemingly about nothing. Noland ended the ’50s with renderings of indecisive circles, such as Askew, 1958, but those tremulous expanding lines of red, yellow, and blue quickly pulled up their socks. In-Sight, 1958—concentric circles held in place by North, South, East, and West directional indexes suggesting the crosshairs of a gun sight—is emblematic of the firmed-up, larger body of target paintings. Such works are conventionally linked to Marsden Hartley’s military abstractions of the 1910s, as well as to the Orphist “Discs” of Robert Delaunay of similar date. Yet Noland’s “Circles” also bring to mind Jasper Johns’s “Targets” as well as other emblems of the intensely mental, such as Carlo Carrà’s Metaphysical Muse, 1917, in which the artist affixes a target—the type painted on Italian reconnaissance airplanes during World War I—to a topographical intelligence map. Arguably, Carrà may seem a bit arcane—but his work appears less so when seen in the context of Noland’s early life in the US Army Air Forces during World War II; doubtless, the simple orange/blue, stop/go “traffic light” of Untitled, 1959, more readily registers within the American purview of meaning.

By the mid-’60s, Noland’s symbolically suggestive insignias had given way to sturdier struts and girders. These “Chevron” and “Stripe” paintings, such as the huge triple V of Morning Span, 1964, or Orange and Blue, 1966, with its gradient of orange diagonal striping interrupted by insistent turquoise-blue bands, still dazzle the viewer. In part, their luminosity is caused by an unpainted, off-white ground—a favored pictorial device Noland learned from Matisse—juxtaposed with the clear untrammeled color of the artist’s Minimal, archetypical patterns.

Since we can never really know the interface—though there is one—between the facts of a painter’s life and the pure retinal thrill generated by his work, Noland’s semantic “emptiness,” rationalized in the ’60s in formalist terms, is now perhaps more intriguingly filled by the biographical hints supplied by the exhibition’s accompanying text, Paul Hayes Tucker’s “American Art for the Atomic Age: Decoding Kenneth Noland’s Early Work.” The essayist’s examination of the painter’s military stint adds enormously to our grasp of the associational content of Noland’s work. In this regard, the once-big formalist news of, say, “the discovery of the center” has been replaced by an imagery recalling, among myriad possibilities, the military chevrons sewn on Noland’s khaki twills, as well as the crisp advertising logos of the day. Indeed, the painter’s training as a combat glider pilot not only suggests the origin of specific patterns typical of his work, but also becomes a metaphor for the sense of aeronautic buoyancy and shimmer that is a Noland hallmark. Today biography, in Noland’s case, thickens the cream, adducing new meaning where otherwise only the thin residue of a once arguably overhailed achievement had formed a ring. This timely exhibition brings the artist back to earth as light as a bird.

Robert Pincus-Witten