Contemporary Art

Kenneth Noland's Transitional Play with Color and Space

Halina Loft
Kenneth Noland’s Blue , 1960, from Standards of Excellence: The Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection, is a highlight of the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May 2019, New York).

I n 1960, Kenneth Noland’s technique was in the midst of transition. Two years earlier, the American artist’s breakthrough series of concentric circles, called Targets, took the art world by storm; many recognize it as seminal of post-war American abstraction. In Targets, Noland leverages fellow artist Helen Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique to create a vivid contrast of color and space. The rings of each target are loosely defined, infusing the work with a dynamic presence that extends beyond the canvas, as critic Clement Greenberg notes:

“Noland’s motifs do not possess the quality of images; they are present solely in an abstract capacity, as means solely of organizing and galvanizing the picture field. Thanks to their centeredness and their symmetry, the discs…create a revolving movement that spins out…beyond the four sides of the picture to evoke, once again, limitless space, weightlessness, air.”
Clement Greenberg
Kenneth Noland, Blue, 1960. Estimate $2,000,000–3,000,000. Standards of Excellence: The Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection.

With Blue, Noland takes this signature technique one step further. At the center of the canvas is the black, rigid circle of the bull’s-eye. The uniform color field focuses the viewer’s gaze inwards, creating a pulsating effect as the black vibrates into the surrounding rings of blue, white, and red. Bare, soak-stain canvas breaks the illusion, giving a nod to Noland’s earlier organic, painterly style. The same technique is at play in the outermost ring and sapphire blue ground of the work—the rings dissolve from hard-edged red and white to blurred blues, seeming to move out towards the edge of the frame and beyond.

The work shows the scale of Noland’s experimentation with palette, scale, and saturation—the result is mesmerizing, as Guggenheim curator Diane Waldman writes:

“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 the following years, Noland’s color field technique would become more defined: geometric shapes and pointed edges would replace soft spirals, and uniform color would outshine noticeable brush strokes. But in Blue, Noland’s chrysalis is not yet complete—instead, both art and artist are at play.

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