Color Is the Key to Noland's Deceptively Simple Canvases


KENNETH NOLAND'S paintings wear well - a personal evaluation that will come as a surprise to those who feel his colorful ``target,'' ``chevron,'' and ``stripe'' canvases are simplistic and trivial, but it should please those who've always considered him one of America's best and most important living artists. Even those who don't feel strongly about him one way or the other should find his current mini-retrospective at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries here interesting and worthwhile. Ranging from 1958 to the present, it includes excellent examples from each period and demonstrates clearly and emphatically that a cool, disciplined sensibility can produce art every bit as ``exciting'' and provocative as that produced by more flamboyant and ``self-expressive'' creative personalities.

The exhibition is assembled on two floors of the gallery's new and expanded facility at 20 East 79th Street. Noland's paintings seem very much at home here - all 52 of them, including eight from his current series, ``Doors,'' which were painted last year and this and which represent another dramatic departure for this always searching, always experimenting artist.

Kenneth Noland was born in 1924 in Asheville, N.C. He studied art at the legendary Black Mountain College from 1946 to '48 and with Ossip Zadkine the following year in Paris. He returned to Washington, D.C., in 1949 to teach at the Institute of Contemporary Art. His first one-man show was held in Paris that same year. Recognition followed rapidly. By 1964, he was well enough known to be included in the Venice Biennial, and in 1965 he received his own retrospective at New York's Jewish Museum.

Although Noland had been making target images since 1958, it was in 1960 that he maximized their effectiveness by simplifying his forms and removing all surface distractions. ``Earthen Bound,'' an 81/2-foot square canvas completed that year and included in this exhibition, is one of the earliest works on view and one of the best. Nothing could be more disarmingly simple and effective: Its solid white circle with large red center and thin band of yellow just inside the outer edge stands out dramatically against its field of deep blue. The description may sound simplistic, but the painting mysteriously holds its own in the company of more ``sophisticated'' and complex images.

``Earthen Bound,'' like nearly all of Noland's paintings, can't be successfully reproduced, even with the best of color processes. Too much depends on the texture of the canvas, the subtle modulations and vibrating optical effects of color against color or against unprimed canvas. As was true of many post-Abstract Expressionist artists, Noland chose one element of the painter's vocabulary to carry the main creative burden of his art. In a Noland painting, everything is subordinated to color. This was true of his early target pictures, and it has remained true of every series since.

A particularly good example is his 1977 ``Field of Green.'' An atmospheric, grayish-green color field almost entirely covers its slightly wedge-shaped, 8-by-51/2-foot surface. At the very top and bottom, a few thin stripes of color that exert only a peripheral effect on the viewing eye run parallel to the painting's edges. That's it - and yet the overall effect is remarkably rich, elegant, and expansive. Flatten the color field, however, or make it glossy (as happens in reproductions), and much of what makes this work special is lost.

In his stripe paintings, on the other hand, numerous bands of color - sometimes only slightly differentiated - run parallel to one another across the entire breadth of the canvas. This ``stacking'' approach to color on surfaces that are often 12 to 20 feet in width, creates vibrant optical effects that often make his images seem larger than they actually are. ``Via Gleam'' (1968), whose width is 12 feet, is one of his simpler examples, and yet it, too, is remarkably vivid and expansive.

In fact, every painting in this show represents a shrewd color strategy predicated on a highly intuitive insight into the nature and impact of colored pigment. ``Untitled'' (1963), one of his earliest and most ``primitive'' chevron images, plays reds against green and white on a canvas almost 10 feet wide.

``Adjoin'' (1980), establishes a taut and provocative balance between red, yellow, black, and blue in a shaped-canvas that measures roughly 15 feet from tip to tip. And `` Doors: Great Skies'' (1988), an 80-inch-high acrylic-and-Plexiglas piece, does wonderful things with aqua-greens.

In all, this intriguing exhibition effectively underscores the quality of Noland's work and indicates that he is likely to make it into the art-history books. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure 20 years ago that he would. This exhibition also stands as a tribute to a gallery that has slowly but surely worked its way up to the top rung of the art world.

At Salander-O'Reilly Galleries through Nov. 11.

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