Executed in 1964, Kenneth Noland’s Baba Yagga concretizes the artist’s command over color, form, and negative space, placing equal emphasis on each of these elements and making them synonymous. The present work belongs to Noland’s body of Chevron paintings, a visually concise series of works that the artist produced for only two years. Baba Yagga exhibits a sense of proportion and chromatic sophistication that is exemplary of Noland at his most developed and in control.
Evenly spaced and oriented on a central axis, Baba Yagga is a cascade of warm autumnal color, descending towards the bottom of the canvas in elegant segments of black, purple, crimson, yellow and off-white. These bands have a visual harmony with the unprimed canvas that serves as the work’s support, engaging notions of inhabited, energetic, positive space, and more calm and sedate negative space. As Terry Fenton explains, “Like arrowheads moving down or across the picture surface, this dramatic layout imposed a bold sense of direction, forcing Noland to find colors to take advantage of the abrupt transition from one band to the next...arranging those hues with dazzling exactitude" (Terry Fenton, "Kenneth Noland," in Exh. Cat., New York, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Inc., Kenneth Noland: An Important Exhibition of Paintings from 1958 through 1989, 1989, p. 11). Each color in Baba Yagga is deployed by Noland with form in mind, not just in the sense of which colors work in harmony, but also in the context of how color can influence the perception of shape.
Kenneth Noland’s artistic development was highly influenced by his exposure to and collaboration with other notable artists of the day. Noland studied under Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in 1947, and the impact of Albers' series of Homage to the Square paintings is evident in the primacy of color and form in Baba Yagga. Later in 1953, after being exposed to the groundbreaking staining technique of Helen Frankenthaler, Noland and Morris Louis, another iconic figure of Color Field painting and the Washington Color School, began an intense period of collaborative experimentation, during which both artists began to develop techniques and stylistic markers that would become their signature. Whereas Louis poured paint directly onto unprimed canvas, Noland took a more studied approach, using rollers to mediate the application of his paint to the canvas, forming the works that would serve as precursors to the series in which the present work belongs.
After his time at Black Mountain College, Noland famously began making Target paintings, which were constructed of concentric circles in a dizzying array of hues. In 1963, seeking to further distill his experimentation in the relationship between color and structure, Noland began to play with a more attenuated form that had a greater interplay with the unprimed canvas. As Diane Waldman explains, "Noland's search of the ideal Platonic form has crystallized into an art in which color and form are held in perfect equilibrium. The spare geometry of his form heightens the emotional impact of his color. The rational and the felt, distilled form and sensuous color intermesh to create a magic presence. His space is color. His color is space. Color is all” (Diane Waldman in Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Kenneth Noland: A Retrospective, 1977, p. 36). More than his Target paintings, works like Baba Yagga serve to integrate the primacy of the canvas, as first established by Frankenthaler, and incorporate the substrate into Noland’s precise investigation of color and form. As Noland explains, "I do open paintings…I like lightness, airiness, and the way color pulsates. The presence of the painting is all that's important" (the artist in Kenworth Moffett, Kenneth Noland, New York 1977, p. 51). Equally engaging in color, form, and negative space, Noland successfully establishes Baba Yagga as an “open painting,” giving his vibrant color and precise form room to breathe.
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