Kenneth Noland


“Jazz”, 1997-98, 24 3/4″ x 24 3/4″

Kenneth Noland died on January 5th of last year.  He was 85.  He had not painted in recent years because of macular degeneration.  He told me that he could no longer see texture.  Texture was a crucial part of Noland’s art even though he was known mostly as a colorist and as a geometric painter.  All of the pictures in his 2006 show at the Ameringer-Yohe Gallery were originally painted in 1979-80 and were meant to be shaped pictures with between five and seven sides each.  The center is open and there are only a few stripes at the edges which parallel one or more of the sides.  These are exquisitely refined and elegant works, which have that ineffable sublimity which only utterly achieved minimalism conveys. Never had Ken been closer to Barnett Newman than in these pictures.  Here shape sometimes even dominates color, but the color is, as always, indispensable.  The best of these pictures are thrilling achievements.  Ken has stretched these pictures only shortly before the show.  He could see well enough to deal with shape and proportion even though he couldn’t paint anymore.

At the time of his death, he was having another exhibition of these same early 80’s shaped pictures at the Leslie Feely Gallery.  The paintings in this show though, were all long, as much as 8′, but no wider than 1-1/2′.  We called these the “surf board” pictures.  Ken was able to hang this show himself, and he chose to hang them all vertical thereby making them, as he said, relate directly to the viewer’s upright body.  In my view this was a mistake.  Many of these pictures look best, most fulsome and expansive, when they spread across the wall, like his previous horizontal stripe pictures.  I personally own one of these pictures and, when Ken last visited me, he had to agree that the horizontal hanging looked best.  Most of them are good both ways.

I have offered my view of Ken’s early development in my 1977 monograph, and I am not going to repeat it here.  But I do want to make a few points about his later work.

As Ken bemoaned to me several times, he was slow to take up acrylic gel and other new possibilities made available by developments in the acrylic medium.  Only in the early 1980’s did he start to use thicker, gel-fortified paint and freehand drawing.  For this he turned back to his earlier chevron layout.  These “painterly chevrons” were terrific.  I remember seeing a show of them in Chicago that was amazing.  He followed these up in 1988 with a wholly new idea, the “doors”, constructions of rectangular canvases, often with narrow strips of florescent colored plastic at the edges.  (As far as I know, this was the only time he used florescent color.)  These too, while less expansive and monumental than the “painterly chevrons,” were often of high quality.  Then, in the early 90’s, came the “flares”, tall, narrow, curved canvases combined with narrow, rectangular ones.  To me, this was the first of Ken’s many different series, which didn’t work.  The color and the composition seemed at odds, the effect disperate and inert.

Next came a group of small targets which he did with the Canadian artist,  Clay Ellis, and which were shown at the Andre Emmerich Gallery in the fall of 1998.  These were done with industrial vinyl, which made them dense, cloudy, and physical.  They had a feeling wholly new to Noland’s art.  They were wonderfully alive and full of promise.  Unfortunately they were never followed up on by Ken himself.  (But they were developed further by Ellis.)  Instead, Noland next produced a series of large targets, a redo of his earliest mature works.  The only difference was that now he sometimes used the newly developed iridescent and glitter paints.  On one level, these targets were as strong and beautiful as ever, but somehow they also seemed a bit smooth and lacked the authenticity of the earlier ones.

Noland should go down as one of the greatest painters of the last half century.  No one has explored pure color and geometry more brilliantly than he.  No one has achieved such a radiant, weightless reality.

Since I wrote the above, I have seen…


“Doors: Black”, 1988, 41 1/4″ x 41