Color Field Pioneer Kenneth Noland’s “One-Shot” Masterworks

Color field pioneer Kenneth Noland was rumored to conjure his sublime, deeply saturated paintings from a very small amount of paint—no more than might fill a paper cup. Now on view at Cardi Gallery, an exhibition of work made during the many eras that defined Noland’s style (1958-1980) reveals his ability to coax chromatic intensity from pared-down compositions.

In a 1977 interview in Art and America, published to coincide with his first major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, Noland described his approach with a comparison to Ernest Hemingway, the great literary minimalist: “Hemingway said about writing that a writer who has to go on and on and on and on about something wasn’t sure of what he was writing about. That if he really knew his subject, he could say it concisely.”

A student of the functionalist Bauhaus painter Josef Albers during his time at Black Mountain College (that hotbed of artistic experimentation where Willem de KooningRobert MotherwellRobert Rauschenberg, and John Cage made important works), Noland set out to explore painting’s essentials: color and form. After a stint in Paris, where he became enthralled by the vivid, carefully selected palettes of Henri Matisse and studied the work of Piet Mondrian, he came back to the U.S. and met the authoritative critic Clement Greenberg, who quickly became the young painter’s champion. Greenberg introduced him to artists that would become Noland’s great friends and fellow color field innovators, Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. In Greenberg’s eyes, the group represented a radical step forward from abstract expressionism—an extended, clarified exploration of the fundamental elements of painting.  

Inspired by Frankenthaler, the three painters shared an approach to applying thinned paint to raw canvas. The moment dye touched the porous fabric surface, it could not be altered or edited—the gesture was immediately fixed. In this way, Noland dubbed his works “one-shot” paintings (if he made a mistake, the entire canvas would be discarded). Noland’s description would go on to carry particular significance after he exhibited his first major series—the concentric circle or “Target” paintings. These established Noland’s signature aesthetic: one of geometric forms that nestle alongside each other, radiating energy from undulating edges and unexpected color pairings. 

The Cardi Gallery exhibition includes one small but powerful concentric circle that feels like the molten core of the show—and of Noland’s body of work as a whole. From its deep red, bullseye center unfold a selection of works from Noland’s other best-known series: his “Stripes,” “Plaid,” and “Shaped Canvas” paintings. 

With each new series, Noland further teased out the formal, dynamic capabilities of color within different frameworks. His signature circles transformed into off-kilter rhombuses, thick stripes, and intersecting patterns of thin lines. Simultaneously, the contours of his square canvases evolved into tondos, diamonds, and wild, irregular polygons. In Call (1973), bands of reds and yellows crisscross over a vivid orange backdrop. The whole composition emanates a garish warmth that is intercepted—and emphasized—by the unusual diamond-shaped stretcher. In Acute (1977) and To stay (1978), the six- and nine-sided paintings are bordered by bands of brilliant, contrasting colors that (though small and compositionally peripheral) assert their visual dominance over the monochromatic centers and eccentric outlines with which they are paired. 

No matter the series, shape, or number of sides, Noland’s focus remained the same: the perpetual excavation of color, aided by variations of form. Knowing this, one imagines Noland would be pleased to know that, above all else, he has been canonized as a brilliant colorist—one who launched color field painting as an influential movement and laid groundwork for the emergence of minimalism. His “one-shot” paintings amass as a serial study of the innate, expressive power of color—annotated with a postmodern desire to pare things down to the bare essentials. In a review of Noland’s 1977 Guggenheim retrospective, critic Robert Hughes praised Noland’s ability to draw pleasure from a concise approach as “pure, uncluttered hedonism.” Concise, indeed.   

Alexxa Gotthardt

Kenneth Noland: Selected Works 1958 – 1980” is on view at Cardi Gallery, Milan, Jan. 20–Apr. 11, 2015.

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