Born: April 10, 1924 - Asheville, North Carolina
Died: January 5, 2010 - Port Clyde, Maine
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"I think of painting without subject matter as music without words."
Kenneth Noland's Color Field painting, which was categorized by Clement Greenberg as belonging to the "Post-Painterly Abstraction" movement, was some of the most focused and consistent art produced in mid-twentieth-century America. After studying under such artists as Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers and working alongside fellow second-generation Color Field abstractionists like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Noland developed a signature style based on simplified abstract forms, including targets, chevrons, and stripes. Noland's paintings are characterized by strikingly minimalist compositions of shape and color. In this regard, Noland's art has influenced a wide range of contemporary abstractionists who continue to experiment with highly simplified forms and pure saturated color.
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In the early 1960s Noland began painting chevrons, or sharply defined V-shaped forms. This shift from circles to straight lines gave him the opportunity to start afresh in his exploration of color relationships, arranging contrasts of colors that interacted side-by-side rather than radially from a shared center. Shoot is an arrangement of four nested chevrons painted in alternating cool and warm colors. Rather than read this canvas from left to right, as we might do with a narrative scene or a landscape, we automatically concentrate on the center of this strictly symmetrical abstract arrangement on its square canvas. The point of the outermost chevron makes contact with the lower edge, thus creating a tension between Noland's composition and the boundaries of its picture plane.
Acrylic on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Kenneth Noland was born on April 10, 1924 in Asheville, North Carolina, one of five sons of Harry Caswell Noland and Bessie Noland. Noland's father was a physician; Noland later described him as a "Sunday painter," an amateur artist who painted in his spare time. Having access to his father's brushes, paints, and canvases, the young Noland played and experimented with these materials, which instilled in him a love of painting and the visual arts. Another early influence was an exhibition of Monet's paintings that he viewed at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
After graduating from high school in 1942, Noland enlisted in the U.S. Air Force following the United States' entry into World War II. He returned from his military service nearly four years later. In 1946 he took advantage of the G.I. Bill by enrolling at Black Mountain College, which was conveniently located approximately 20 miles from Noland's childhood home in Asheville. The highly experimental school was important to many young artists at this time because of its interdisciplinary approach to art education. Its faculty (which included notables like Willem de Kooning and John Cage) insisted that every student receive a comprehensive education in everything from dance and musical composition to sculpture and easel painting.
At Black Mountain College, Ilya Bolotowsky introduced Noland to the Neo-Plasticism and geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian, while Bauhaus artist Josef Albers acquainted him with the work of Paul Klee. Noland paid close attention to Klee's subtle nuances of color combined with bold contrasts of positive and negative space, which eventually informed Noland's own art. In later years Noland credited Albers as the most influential of all his former instructors, particularly in his teachings on the interaction of color.
In 1948, after two years at Black Mountain, Noland traveled to Paris and studied under the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Noland would eventually rebel against Zadkine's Cubist teachings, opting for radically simplified color and form. In 1949 he had his first one-man show at the Galerie Raymond Creuze in Paris.
After a year abroad, Noland returned to the United States and began his teaching career. He taught at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C. from 1949 to 1951, then at Catholic University (also in D.C.) from 1951 to 1960. He also taught at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts from 1952 to 1956.
While living in D.C., Noland met and befriended fellow painter Morris Louis. At this time both men were painting in an Abstract Expressionist style, although neither artist was considered a member of the so-called first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists that centered in New York City. In 1951, he married Cornelia Langer, the daughter of a United States senator. The marriage would end in divorce, as did his second and third marriages: he was wed to Stephanie Gordon in 1967 and to Peggy Schiffer in 1970.
In 1952 or 1953, the critic Clement Greenberg escorted Noland and Louis to the New York studio of Helen Frankenthaler to view her recently completed Mountains and Sea (1952). At the time, Frankenthaler was using a unique technique of pouring oil paints onto unprimed canvas, allowing the medium to soak into its support rather than just dry on the surface. Viewing this technique marked a major turning point in Noland's career as an artist. Following this studio visit, Noland decided to abandon any tendencies to paint in the Abstract Expressionist style and began work on a new set of paintings: the so-called Targets (c. late 1950s-60s). These paintings, also called Circles, were his breakthrough works. In 1958 he began applying a variety of colors to a basic circle template centered on a square canvas, creating a burst of concentric circles rendered in complementary colors that contrasted sharply against the neutral background of the square support.
In the early 1960s, Noland's exploration of color relationships grew increasingly bold and ambitious. In his earlier, less refined Target paintings, heavier color forms had been placed against a white or off-white backdrop. By 1962 Noland began to experiment with colored backdrops and cleaner edges. He also began making the innermost circles, rather than the outer layers, the visual focal point of the composition.
By 1963 Noland had concluded that he had exhausted the possibilities of his "circles in a square" format. He wanted to continue to experiment with colors and their interactions, but he needed a different theme with which to work. For the next phase of his career he began his Chevron paintings (1960s), an even more simple and minimalist series of abstract imagery.
In 1964 Clement Greenberg curated an exhibition of new art at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, including works by Noland as well as by Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Bush, Frank Stella, Morris Louis, and various others. Attempting to formally categorize this emerging post-Abstract Expressionist art, Greenberg dubbed this group's work "Post-Painterly Abstraction."
Later that year, Noland was selected to participate in a show entitled "Four Germinal Painters" at the United States Pavilion of the 32nd Venice Biennale. In that installation, a number of Noland's works from his Targets and Chevrons series hung alongside paintings by Morris Louis, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg.
In the early 1960s, Noland began dividing his time between New York and a farm in Vermont. In Vermont he met and became lifelong friends with the artists Jules Olitski and Anthony Caro, with whom he shared certain abstractionist values.
In the late 1960s, Noland's approach to Color Field painting grew even more reductive, but no less bold. Having run through multiple permutations of both the target and chevron format for the time being, Noland switched to using rectangular canvases and horizontal lines in a new series he called Stripes (1967-70). In his Targets and Chevrons, the artist tended to juxtapose color bands of equal width and to impose some form of axial symmetry on the canvas, leaving portions of unprimed canvas blank in contrast to the color. None of these features occur in Noland's Stripes. Instead, Noland began playing with scale, color, and form on new levels. He reduced his compositions to a basic formula: parallel horizontal lines of varying widths and colors, running along the entire width of the canvas.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Noland made a brief return to chevrons, experimented with color compositions in plaid-like patterns, and, perhaps most importantly, produced several differently shaped canvases. He also made a brief return to teaching, and in 1985 he took an appointment as the Milton Avery Professor of the Arts at Bard College.
In 1999, Noland began work on his Mysteries series of paintings (c. 1999-2002), which was in many respects a return to his beginnings as a formalist abstractionist of the late 1950s. Using acrylics on paper and unprimed canvas, he once again painted symmetrical circular targets on square supports. His new Targets, much like the older ones, were as visually bold as they were deliberately void of subject; however, he wanted to reaffirm their relevancy as the new millennium approached.
Noland died in 2010, at the age of 85. He had lived much of his late life in a quiet community in Maine, where he worked in his studio until his final days. He was survived by his fourth wife, Paige Rense, as well as three children from his first marriage and a son from his third marriage. He was honored shortly after his death by a memorial presentation at the Guggenheim Museum.
Combining the geometric abstraction of Mondrian and the color interactions of Albers with the spiritual ambiguity of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Noland created abstractions comprised of pure colors, shapes, and lines to create contrast and energy on the canvas, while eventually removing all gestural traces or references to the external world. In this artistic enterprise he shared a mutual influence with his contemporaries Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, and David Smith, as well as other Washington Color School artists like Anne Truitt and Gene Davis. His flat, starkly simple compositions helped to pave the way for Minimalism and for artists like Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Robert Irwin, as well as for the Neo Geo movement's ironic revival of flat, geometrical compositions in the 1980s. Noland's art also exercised a continuing influence on a later generation of Washington, D.C. painters working in various modes of abstraction.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Kenneth Noland
| Kenneth Noland: The Nature Of Color |
By Alison de Lima Greene, Karen Wilkin, and Peter Marzio
| Kenneth Noland |
By Kenworth Moffett
| Kenneth Noland (20th Century Artists) |
By Karen Wilkin
| Appreciating Noland |
By Terry Fenton
| Kenneth Noland Official Website |
| Kenneth Noland at Mitchell-Innes & Nash || Kenneth Noland: A Retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum |
| Kenneth Noland |
By Mark Dagley
| Kenneth Noland, Abstract Painter of Brilliantly Colored Shapes, Dies at 85 |
By William Grimes
| Ken Noland, American Color Field Painter |
By Terry Fenton
| No Message, No Story: The Color's About Color |
By Grace Glueck
| The Power of 'Cool' |
By Ken Greenleaf
| About the Arts: Kenneth Noland and Diane Waldman, 1977 || Painters Painting, 1973 |
Features an Interview with Kenneth Noland