Kenneth Noland was an American painter best known for his large-scale canvases, geometric figures and expanses of flat colour. Noland's "colour field" paintings, first seen in 1950s, were an example of what the art critic Clement Greenberg termed "post painterly abstraction". This was a new and dramatic departure in American art, influenced by some of Jackson Pollock's techniques but which reacted against abstract expressionism. In these distinctive works Noland eschewed any symbolism or personal artistic traces, such as brush-strokes. He considered representation to be "a distraction... something apart from the formal characteristics of painting" and preferred instead to explore what he called the "the infinite range and expressive possibilities of colour".
Noland was born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1924. At the age of 14 he made his first excursion to the National Gallery in Washington. The visit prompted him to take up painting, using materials lent by his father, who was a pathologist by profession and keen amateur artist.
Following military service during the war, in 1946 Noland joined Black Mountain College, fortuitously located only some 20 miles from his home town. Black Mountain was a radical and experimental endeavour in education, which focussed on creativity and imposed no formal curriculum, encouraging students and staff to learn from one another through exchange of ideas and experiences. Art classes were under Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers, who had previously taught at the Bauhaus and had fled to America from Nazi Germany in 1933. The work of these two geometric artists was to have a significant influence on Noland's oeuvre.
In 1948 he left for Paris to study with the Russian sculptor and painter Ossip Zadkine and had his first one-man show there a year later at the Galerie Raymond Creuze. Returning to Washington, he studied the works of Paul Klee in the Phillips Collection and was inspired by paintings such as Arabic Song (1932), in which Klee applied oil paint directly onto hessian, without first priming the material.
A further development to his technique came in 1953 when, invited by Clement Greenberg, he and his friend, the artist Morris Louis, visited the studio of abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler. On seeing her work Mountains and Sea (1952), Noland was struck by how she had used pigments and thinner directly to "soak stain" the canvas. Noland soon adopted this method of painting for many of his works, as it provided rich colours and left no traces of brushwork. Noland and Louis co-operated at this time on what they called "jam painting", working on the same canvas in experiments which led ultimately to Louis's Veil paintings series of 1954.
By 1956 Noland had moved away entirely from abstract expressionist principles and from the late fifties to the seventies there followed groups of his trademark geometrical painting series including: circles or "targets" (1958-62), chevrons (1962-4), diamonds (1964-7), stripes (late 1960s), lines (1970s). Two of the circles series of paintings, Gift (1961-2) and Drought (1962), are in the Tate collection. He first showed at the Tate as part of the group show Painting and Sculpture of a Decade, 1954-1964.
Describing his working methods for creating these geometrical works, he explained in a lecture later in life:
"Usually I start by fooling with the stuff, make messes. Sometimes something comes out of it; sometimes it doesn't. I paint my paintings directly. I almost never paint over. This maintains the attention of the picture for me, my contact with what I am doing."
In 1963 Noland moved to South Shaftsbury, Vermont, close to Bennington College, where he collaborated with Paul Feeley, Jules Olitski and British sculptor, Anthony Caro. In a 1966 Vogue article the museum director, Alan Solomon, dubbed the group the "Green Mountain Boys", in a double reference to their mentor Greenberg and to the 1775 Vermont revolutionaries of the same name.
By the end of the sixties, Noland had achieved considerable recognition. He and his wife Stephanie were dividing their time between a New York apartment and the Vermont farmstead. Time Magazine said of him in April 1969:
"Geometric painters are a dime a dozen these days. But few of them command the critical respect or the youthful following that Noland inspires. One obvious difference, for anyone who has seen a Noland painting, is that he somehow imparts through his brush, his sponges and his rollers a zest and vigor, a freshness and exuberance that other geometricists lack."
Noland had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1977 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the same year.
During the early 1980s he experimented with irregularly-shaped canvases, breaking away from the restrictions of the traditional rectangular or square formats. A show of these works, Kenneth Noland Shaped Paintings 1981-82, runs from October 2009 to January 2010 at the Leslie Feely Fine Art Gallery in New York.
Tate Liverpool hosted the 2006 exhibition Kenneth Noland: The Stripe Paintings, curated by Christoph Grunenberg and Simon Groom and showing his huge horizontal works of the late sixties, consisting of simple stripes of pure colour.
For Noland the key to art was the essential dialogue between a painting and the viewer. In his own words:
“When you look at a great painting, it's like a conversation. It has questions for you. It raises questions in you.”
Born Asheville, North Carolina, 10 April 1924;
Married 1950, Cornelia Langer (two sons, one daughter) (divorced); Married 1967, Stephanie Gordon (divorced); Married Peggy L. Schiffer (one son); Married 1994, Paige Rense; Died Port Clyde, Maine, 5 January 2010;
(c) 2010 Marcus Williamson