"[Noland's] colors, at maximum intensity, aligned one next to another, are tightly locked within the bands of the chevron, subject to the pressure of the contiguous areas of raw canvas and the rectangular support. Shape in the chevrons, as in all phases of Noland's work, is an extremely important element; its primary function, however, is to serve as a vehicle for color expression."
Diane Waldman, "Kenneth Noland," in Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Kenneth Noland: A Retrospective, 1977, p. 30
A striking example of Kenneth Noland’s lauded series of Chevron paintings, East-West masterfully displays the artist’s signature use of acrylic paint on raw canvas to create bold areas of pure color that explore the chromatic and the geometric rather than the gestural. Executed in 1963, the year in which Noland first produced his Chevrons, the present work exhibits a sense of proportion and prismatic sophistication that is exemplary of the artist at his most developed and in control. Indicative of his prodigious skill and innovation, Noland was championed by Clement Greenberg, the most influential critic and arbiter of American Modernism in the Twentieth Century. Perfectly balanced and oriented on the central axis, East-West is an exquisite example of his painterly ability, as it offers a cascade of warm autumnal hues; its elegant arrangement of yellow, gold, purple, burgundy, and crimson concretizes Noland’s command over color, form, and space. The entire canvas is activated by brilliant pure color and precise axial symmetry, resulting in a composition of fully engaged positive space and direction.
Characterized by triangular segments of color pointing toward the bottom of the picture plane, East-West, like other paintings in the Chevron series, experiments with the dynamic functioning of color on a two-dimensional surface. The tip of the chevron just barely touches the edge of the canvas so that the viewer’s eye is repeatedly forced downward, creating an intense visual effect that fulfills Noland’s desire to simulate optical sensations through various shapes and forms. Shape in the Chevrons, as in all stages of the artist’s work, is a crucial element, though its most important function is to serve as a vehicle for color expression. Noland’s hues, at maximum intensity, aligned one next to another, are tightly locked within the bands of the chevron, and each color’s edge defines and emphasizes the next. Color used this way, in its purity, is flat and thus calls attention to the surface—a surface that is of regular, geometric shape. 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" (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 East-West 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.
Noland was gifted with a precocious understanding of these elements from the very beginning of his career, but his artistic development was also highly influenced by his exposure to and collaboration with other notable artists of the day. Noland studied under Ilya Bolotowsky at Black Mountain College in 1946, and the impact of Bolotowsky’s formal geometry and experimentation with color are evident in works like East-West. Another professor of Noland’s was Josef Albers, whose influence can also be seen in the younger artist’s self-imposed restriction to a serialized geometric framework of abstraction. 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. With East-West, those early experiments with color and application are deployed to dazzling effect, as the complementary hues become enriched and intensified through hard edged contrast.
Phenomenally simple, Noland’s pictures can aesthetically suggest richness and complexity. In East-West, his solid, angular lines bring a motion and vibrancy to the composition, and his large blocks of brilliant, complementary colors create a visual heat that is dramatically expressive. Further, the arrow motif so expertly deployed creates a dynamic tension between openness and closure, or between the painted image and the canvas’s shape, as each successive “V” seems to extend further beyond the edges of the picture plane. In keeping with Noland’s interest in optical illusion, at the same time that his composition is so elegantly contained by the geometry of the square, it also appears to continue its motion into space, as though cut from some larger image. This sophisticated style of artistic play is indicative of Noland as a preeminent master of color and form, as East-West both acknowledges the flat surface of the two-dimensional canvas while simultaneously imparting an impressive visual depth.