Ken Noland died a few days ago, here in Maine at Port Clyde. He was nearly the last of a generation of fine painters who were looking at things in similar ways, and easily the most influential. His stripe, chevron and target paintings opened to door to a whole new way of painting for a great many others that came after, including Frank Stella, Sean Scully, Pat Lipsky, Winston Roeth and many more.
Noland’s work can’t be understood at all from reproductions. The scale, the presence of the canvas, and most of all, the color, makes them an event, every time you get to see them. On a screen or in book, they’re just shapes. In person they take over your awareness.
Noland was never a minimalist artist, although his methods prefigured, in some degree, the work of people like Sol Lewitt. His work was neither self-referential or analytic, both attributes of minimalism. Instead, his paintings are rooted in a sincere belief in the power of art to communicate the depths of human awareness. His paintings are emotional, even passionate, and belong more to the heritage of Matisse than Duchamp.HIs paintings are about life, not about art. He simply chose to do his work with as few elements as possible, letting his color carry the day.
I barely knew Noland, having met him a couple of times in the 1970’s in New York, but did have opportunities to see a number of his major paintings repeatedly, as well as see his shows over the years. A show at Bowdoin this past year gave me the chance to revisit one of his early target paintings from 1958, and it still looks great.
Learning to see Noland’s work in my early life in New York taught me a lot about how to look at paintings, and even more about what to look for in art, period. I know he had fine career and a long life, but I’m still sad he’s no longer with us.