Kenneth Noland

#96. Alan Gouk writes on Key Paintings of the 20th Century; a Musée Imaginaire, Part 2

Joan Miro, “Painting”, 1953, Guggenheim NY, © 2018 Successió Miró Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris

“First the Giants, then the pygmies.”   Elie Faure

PART 2  

Notes Synthetiques ca. 1888  by Paul Gauguin: “Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature whilst dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than of nature”.

To Schuffeneker Aug. 1888: “Like music it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses. Harmonious colours respond to the harmonies of sounds”.

And in Diverse Choses 1898: “ The impressionists… heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centres of thought”.

The sources of these ideas, which were to prove so fertile for the development of abstract painting, lay in the literature of early German Romanticism, Jean Paul, E T A Hoffmann, the synaesthesic imagery taken up by Baudelaire, Schopenhauer’s views on music as reinterpreted by Wagner, and the cult of Richard Wagner in France, which influenced even the  young Cézanne, and the symbolist poets gathered around Mallarme (though some of these pronouncements of Gauguin antecede his friendship with the latter).

Wagner’s music, especially in The Ring, could be described as the triumph of bad literature over music, or the subjugation of music to the literary imagination. The idea that colour, like music, can express the “mysterious centres of thought” appeals to the literary minded, so it is not surprising to find it echoed in Baudelaire and Mallarme. (See the poem Les Phares by Baudelaire). It is for the most part foreign to the French line in painting stemming from Delacroix and finding its culmination in Matisse. Although Matisse echoes the Mallarmean aesthetic “to paint not the thing but the emotion that it arouses in the artist”, in practice his art remains wedded to the full lustre of the sensory world. The transpositions of colour, red for blue, black for azure, are less emotionally driven as arising from his discoveries in Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904/05, that degrees of saturation of hue can form the tonal structure, rather than oppositions of dark and light, just as simultaneous contrasts of colour create light rather than oppositions or gradations of warm and cool.

George Seurat and the theorist Charles Henry voiced similar ideas about the expressive role of line and colour in conveying emotion, on the analogy with music, independently of their function in representation. Chromoluminisme as practiced by Seurat and Divisionism as practiced by Paul Signac, endeavour to combine this emotive theory with the science of colour, a hyper-realism, the two sitting uneasily together, and with mixed results, Pissarro being one of the first to express disillusionment with both the pictorial outcome and the intellectual distancing inherent in the approach.


#25. Carl Kandutsch writes on “Kenneth Noland’s Discovery”

Kenneth Noland, "That", 1958-59, acrylic resin on canvas, 81.75 x 81.75 inches. © 1997 Kenneth Noland, licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

Kenneth Noland, “That”, 1958-59, acrylic resin on canvas, 81.75 x 81.75 inches. © 1997 Kenneth Noland, licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

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.


#23. Robin Greenwood writes on Flatness at Pace and Plastic Space

Installation shot at Pace London, works by Caro and Noland.

Installation shot at Pace London, works by Caro (Stainless Piece C, 1974/5) and Noland.

Hoyland, Caro, Noland at Pace Gallery, London.

In the mid-20th Century shared unreality that was ‘Caroland’ it was somehow viable, with intentions that were quite probably on the right side of honest, to make a sculpture – in this case, Stainless Piece C, 1974/5 – that sat flat on the floor and rose up no more than a couple of inches, so you looked down upon it like a relief laid horizontally (I made a few like this myself); and to make it out of a few scattered (or were they artfully composed?) pieces of stainless steel plate and other bits and pieces (David Smith’s steel?) that had been scoured with an angle-grinder to give an optical illusion of depth to its surface when it had none at all to its structure (again, like Smith?). In the Pace Gallery, London, this work is shown on a plinth that is a good three inches taller than the sculpture itself (didn’t Caro do away with plinths? Did the gallery decide the work’s lack of status required one?), making a combined height, sculpture and plinth, of oh… all of eight inches or so. And because it’s by Caro, and because he’s now dead (R.I.P.), and because it’s a piece of art history merchandising already, and because it’s the prestigious Pace Gallery; because of all this and more, and for no reason due to its inherent value, since it transparently has none, unless you view it through a thick haze of sentimental regret for simpler and more certain times in abstract art; this pathetic little piece of twaddle has become a luxury commodity, imbued with all the myths of modernism, reflecting back at us our own ‘good-housekeeping-modern-but-weren’t-we-ever-so-radical-back-in-the-sixties’ taste.


#3. Emyr Williams: ‘Homage Limitations’

Helen Frankenthaler, 'For E.M.', 1981

Helen Frankenthaler, ‘For E.M.’, 1981, 71″x115″, acrylic on canvas.

Many years ago I was in a dinner party in California given by my cousin. She is an actor and producer and the company she invited was charming and witty and the conversation easy and friendly. I enjoyed it, and it exuded a slightly glamorous atmosphere too, being in a villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. One comment though has stuck with me to this day: It was when I was asked “Where are you from?” I answered without thinking, “Wales.” One highly impressed person leaned over to me and in almost hushed tones said: “Wow, that is the spiritual centre of the universe.” Now, I am a proud Welshman and I am always pleased if another nationality knows that Wales exists, let alone passes any kind of familiar comment about it, yet this comment was something I did not see coming at all. I smiled and nodded and thought about this statement… we clearly had very different experiences and ideas of Wales. I assumed he pictured a group of Druids, solemnly striding around a circle of stones, in touch with the forces of nature and the general turning of the universe; whereas I suddenly thought of my home town on a Friday night, when a fellow I was in school with burst into one of the pubs and offloaded two blasts of his shotgun into the ceiling. I won’t name names for legal reasons, though I doubt if he is reading this (and that is a sentence with one word too many). You could say his action was the result of a completely different kind of spirituality.

Artists tend to love Art. We go to galleries, exhibitions and openings. When we are not making Art, we are looking at it or talking about it. We look for it online, we participate in forums, symposia and generally surround and busy ourselves with as much of it as we can. It is our visual food. Yet can our love of Art sometimes be our undoing? Clement Greenberg once said: “The superior artist knows how to be influenced.” The question raised is: influenced by whom and – more importantly – in what way?