Kenneth Noland’s Discovery
Kenneth Noland famously declared that his breakthrough as a painter occurred when he “discovered the center of the canvas”[i] in the late 1950s. Noland’s “discovery” produced a series of well-known paintings executed between 1958 and 1962 based on the placement of concentric circles of various colors in varying widths radiating out from the exact center toward but never reaching the four edges of the picture, usually comprising a six-foot square.
This essay addresses the question of what exactly Noland can be said to have “discovered” and why the concept of “discovery” is crucial in understanding the nature of modernist painting and sculpture.
Background: The Modernist Situation
In 1962 Clement Greenberg wrote:
“Under the testing of modernism, more and more of the conventions of the art of painting have shown themselves to be dispensable, unessential. By now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness; and that the observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object which can be experienced as a picture: thus, a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily a successful one. (The paradoxical outcome of this reduction has been not to contract, but actually to expand the possibilities of the pictorial: much more than before now lends itself to being experienced pictorially or in meaningful relation to the pictorial: all sorts of large and small items that used to belong entirely to the realm of the arbitrary and the visually meaningless.)”[ii]
However, what Greenberg refers to as a “paradoxical outcome” may not be paradoxical at all: the search for the “irreducible essence of pictorial art” revealed that pictorial art has no irreducible essence at all. This would imply that the distinction between art and non-art is really arbitrary; there is ultimately no meaningful distinction between objects that are considered “art” (for example, in the political economy of a particular market sector) and ordinary objects in the world.