Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Earning His Stripes: Kenneth Noland in the ‘60s

Leslie Feely Fine Art
33 East 68th Street
New York City

May 8 – Jun 27, 2008


Kenneth Noland Via Light 1968, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 113 inches, Courtesy of Lelie Feely Fine Art
Kenneth Noland, Via Light 1968, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 113 inches, Courtesy of Lelie Feely Fine Art

It was exhilarating and depressing to visit “Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today,” at the Museum of Modern art this past spring. Exhilarating to see how crowded the galleries were, especially with younger people, all apparently eager to see a show about color. Depressing because the show itself was so limited. How many of these art-lovers, I asked myself, are going to come away thinking that this is all that color can do? How many of them are going to get to Leslie Feely Fine Art, where they can see how far beyond the paint pot it is possible for a real master to go?

MoMA’s show was predicated on the Duchampian assumption that mass-produced objects (whether bicycle wheels or commercially fabricated paints) are as good as, or better than, the work of a human hand. In the ‘60s, this outlook was voiced by Andy Warhol saying “I want to be a machine,” and Frank Stella’s “straight out of a can; it can’t get better than that.” I asked Kenneth Noland, who belongs to the same artistic generation as Warhol and Stella, whether the paintings in his show at Leslie Feely were made with paint straight out of the can. “Oh God no!” he exclaimed, going on to explain that not only did he have to mix paints to get the colors he wanted, but also depending on the way that the paint’s applied, different degrees of liquidity are needed as well.

None of the paintings at Leslie Feely scream color. They are part of the series of horizontal stripe paintings that Noland executed in the mid- to late-‘60s, but that series began with brilliant colors and modulated into paler ones. The paintings in this show are mostly later, paler ones. My initial impression was of exquisite elegance and delicacy, but after I stayed a while, the paintings began to get to me on a gut level, too, particularly because I studied them carefully, and tried to jot down the colors used.

“Shade” (1969), a very narrow picture, has some of the brighter colors in the show: chartreuse, yellow, apple green, deep red, rust, magenta, and bark. “Via Shimmer” (1968), one of the palest, is built around seven or eight shades of ecru, beige, pale mauve and palest blue. “Via Light” (1968), the most variegated, is a symphony of eleven different pale blues, aquas, yellows and creams.

Adding to complexity, the stripes are of varying widths, and the painted stripes are usually interspersed with narrow bands of raw canvas. The bands of raw canvas endow the surfaces with textural variety that softens and further humanizes them, gives them a chance to breathe. At the same time, Noland’s rigidly straight bands of color, created with the aid of masking tape and rollers, are very much of a piece with the post-painterly esthetics of the ‘60s. His work was included in MoMA’s big show of op art in 1965, “The Responsive Eye.”

The forms in Noland’s paintings are usually dismissed as mere devices to enable him to explore color, but the lines and shapes of these paintings have a basis in the natural world as well. As even a computer geek knows, a horizontal format suggests landscape (as opposed to portrait). Horizontal stripes add to the feelings of harmony and serenity that these paintings project, while titles like “Via Light” and “Via Shimmer” suggest Roman roads and air mail stickers, thus ideas of travel and motion and speed.