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Kenneth Noland Photo

Kenneth Noland - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Born: April 10, 1924 - Asheville, North Carolina
Died: January 5, 2010 - Port Clyde, Maine

Biography of Kenneth Noland


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.

Early Training

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.

Mature Period

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.

Late Period

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.

The Legacy of Kenneth Noland

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.

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Kenneth Noland Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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