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Modern Artist: Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland's art can be categorized as Color Field painting, or as part of Clement Greenberg's "Post-Painterly Abstraction" movement, but Noland's body of work demonstrates so much more. After studying under the likes of Bolotowsky and Albers, and working alongside fellow second-generation abstractionists like Frankenthaler and Louis, Noland created several signature styles of abstract imagery. These styles were comprised of targets, chevrons, striped patterns and shaped canvases. Noland's paintings are characterized by reduced, minimalist and strikingly simple compositions of line and color. In this regard, Noland's art has influenced a wide range of contemporary abstractionists who continue to experiment with ultra-simplified forms in order to tap into basic human emotions.

Key Ideas
  • Noland was heavily influenced by the teachings of Josef Albers, who famously taught and wrote that colors and people's perceptions of them are governed by intrinsic human instincts. Albers called this theory "the interaction of colors."
  • Noland spent a lifetime experimenting with a variety of forms (circles, chevrons, plaids, etc.) and colors on the canvas in order to challenge people's perceptions without offering any apparent meaning or context in his art.
  • Noland's art reduced abstract imagery to its most basic archetypes - in the form of geometric shapes and lines.

Kenneth Noland was born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina. His father was what Noland later described as a "Sunday painter," an amateur artist who painted in his spare time. Having access to brushes, paints and canvas, Noland played and experimented with these materials as a young boy, which instilled in him a love of painting and the visual arts.

After graduating 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. The highly experimental Black Mountain College was important to many young artists at this time because of its interdisciplinary approach to art education. Its faculty insisted that every student receive a comprehensive education in everything from dance and choreography to sculpture and easel painting.

Early Training
At Black Mountain, Professor Ilya Bolotowsky introduced Noland to the neo-plastics and geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian, while Bauhaus artist Josef Albers introduced him to the work of Paul Klee. Noland paid very close attention to Klee's subtle nuances of color combined with bold contrasts of positive and negative space, which eventually informed his own art. In later years Noland credited Albers above all his other former instructors as the most influential, particularly with regards to his teachings on the interaction of color.

In 1948, after two years at Black Mountain, Noland traveled to Paris and studied under the Cubist Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Noland would eventually rebel against Zadkine's teachings, opting for ultra-simplified color and form rather than a Cubist's preference for painting contrasts of light and shadow.

After a year in Paris, Noland returned to the U.S. and began his teaching career. He first taught at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C. from1949-1951, followed by a much longer tenure at Catholic University (also in D.C.) from 1951-1960. He also taught at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts from 1952-1956.

While living in D.C., Noland met and befriended fellow painter Morris Louis. At this time both men were painting in the Abstract Expressionist style, although neither Noland nor Louis were considered members of the so-called first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists.

Although the exact date is not known, some time during 1952 or '53, critic Clement Greenberg escorted Noland and Louis to the New York studio of Helen Frankenthaler (with whom Greenberg was romantically involved) to view her recently completed Mountains and Sea (1952). Frankenthaler used a unique painting technique of pouring oils onto unprimed canvas, allowing the paints to soak in rather than just dry on the surface. Viewing Mountains and Sea color-field painting technique marked a major turning point in Noland's career as a artist. Following this studio visit, Noland decided to abandon any tendencies to paint in the Abstract Expressionist style and began work on a set of color-field paintings for which he would become best known: the Targets.

Kenneth Noland's Target paintings, alternatively called Circles, were undoubtedly his breakthrough works. In 1958 he began applying a variety of color to a basic circle template positioned on a square canvas, often creating a burst of concentric circles rendered in complementary colors, which contrasted well against the square support.

Another interesting feature of Noland's early Targets, painted between 1958 and 1960, was the presence of a smeared, almost jagged outer edge that framed the inner circles, suggesting a final burst of seemingly infinite color, stretching outward into the cosmos.

As the 1960s commenced, Noland's use of color grew increasingly bold and ambitious. In his earlier, less refined Target paintings, heavier color forms were situated against a white or off-white backdrop. By 1962 Noland began to experiment with colored backdrops and cleaner dividing lines between each circle. He also began making the innermost point of his circles the visual focal point rather than the outer layers.

By 1963, Noland had concluded that his 'circles in a square' format was exhausted and it was time for something new. Noland wanted to continue to experiment with colors and their interactions with one another, but he needed a different format with which to work. The Chevron series was his next phase as an artist, growing increasingly simple and minimalist with his abstract imagery.

In 1964 Clement Greenberg was curating an exhibit of new art at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art. This show was Greenberg's personal attempt at formally categorizing post-Abstract Expressionist art forms. In addition to Noland, Greenberg selected works by Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Bush, Frank Stella, Morris Louis, with various others, dubbing this new stage in fine abstract art "Post-Painterly Abstraction."

Later that same year, Noland was selected to participate in a show entitled Four Germinal Painters at the U.S. Pavilion of the 32nd Venice Biennale. Many of Noland's Targets and Chevrons sat alongside paintings by Louis, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

In the late 1960s, Noland's approach to Color Field painting grew even simpler, but no less bold. Having exhausted the possibilities and permutations of both the target and chevron format for the time being, Noland settled on a rectangular canvas support and began covering the entire canvas with horizontal bands of color.

Of the three major stylistic phases in Noland's early career, his Stripes paintings are perhaps the most daring in their stark simplicity. In earlier phases, he tended to juxtapose color bands of equal width, incorporate some form of symmetry on the canvas, leaving portions of unprimed canvas blank as a stark contrast to the color. None of these features are found with most of Noland's Stripe paintings. Instead, Noland began playing with scale and color as form on new levels. He reduced his compositions to a basic formula: horizontal lines of color interacting with each other, often without regard for pattern or uniformity.

Later Years
In 1977, Noland was honored with his very first retrospective exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The exhibit subsequently traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., which today houses one of the more impressive permanent collections of Noland's paintings anywhere in the world.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Noland made a brief return to chevrons, experimented with color compositions in the form of plaids, and perhaps most importantly, produced several shaped canvases. He also made a brief return to teaching, and in 1985 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, which was in many respects a return to his beginnings as a formalist abstractionist in the late 1950s. Using acrylics on both paper and unprimed canvas, he was once again creating symmetrical targets on square supports. These paintings were for Noland a return to his roots as well as symbolic gestures. His new Targets, much like the older ones, were as visually bold as they were contextually meaningless, however, he wanted to reaffirm their relevancy as the new millennium approached.

Kenneth Noland's legacy is that of an artist who took Abstract Expressionism - a movement renowned for its simplicity - and simplified it further. Combining the geometric abstraction of Mondrian and the color interactions of Albers with the spiritual ambiguity of Rothko and Newman, Noland has created abstractions comprised of pure forms, wherein any meaning or context is left entirely to the viewer's discretion. His intention as a painter has been to use the simplest of colors, shapes and lines to create movement on the canvas, to the point where they are living, albeit very basic, primitive life forms.


Below are Kenneth Noland's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

Paul Klee
Ossip Zadkine
Piet Mondrian
Ilya Bolotowsky
Josef Albers
Barnett Newman
Clement Greenberg
Morris Louis
Helen Frankenthaler
David Smith
Abstract Expressionism
Kenneth Noland
Years Worked: 1953 - present
Frank Stella
Ellsworth Kelly
Jules Olitski
Robert Irwin
Morris Louis
Helen Frankenthaler
Donald Judd
Michael Fried
Washington Color School
Formalist Abstraction
Hard-edge Painting
Color Field Painting

"I think of painting without subject matter as music without words."

"With artists of my own generation there was at first no group identity - and never a clique."

"As time goes on, I realize more and more that, beginning in the early '30s, David Smith began setting the precedent for what was to come later for many of us."

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

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