Noland began to create images featuring concentric rings of color in 1958 as an exploration in the optical and emotional possibilities of color. These paintings, known as Targets, came to represent a radical break with the reigning artistic tradition. Rejecting the all-over compositions of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, Noland took what he saw as the next logical step and asserted the center of the canvas as his focus. The circle, as the ideal form with which to focus on the center, became a signature component of his innovative work; preeminent critic Clement Greenberg praised this dramatic breakthrough: “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, “Louis and Noland,” in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, Chicago, 1993, p. 98) Aside from the myriad symbolic interpretations of the circle, it is a dynamic shape that perfectly serves Noland’s purpose of examining the visual and expressive effects of color within a rigid geometric format.
In Blue, Noland's colors seem to pulsate toward the edges of the canvas. The concentrated black dot in the middle of the target acts as a central anchor around which the white, blue, red, and bare canvas rings vibrate; as complementary shades they intensify this effect. Like his former professor Josef Albers, with whom he briefly studied at Black Mountain College, Noland elected to work within a simplified graphic design using a repeating image, allowing him to focus on color, his primary concern. Within this framework, he thoroughly experimented with the palette, scale, size, and saturation of his bands. “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) As a result, the emotional impact of his color is consistently heightened. For this reason, since their inception, Noland’s Targets have been regarded as quintessential examples of Post-Painterly Abstraction.
As an emblematic model of this style, Blue vividly underlines Noland’s unique command over technique and space. He painted his first Targets with soft, blurred edges, but they eventually became more sharply delineated, aligning with the then-emerging style known as Hard Edge painting. Blue represents a transitional point in this process; while the central rings are tightly defined, the largest ring and adjoining sapphire ground still bear the traces of the artist’s soaking technique. In some areas the paint is notably more concentrated, while in others it is thinner and the weave of the canvas is highly visible – a result of Noland’s soak-stain technique, first employed and made famous by his peer Helen Frankenthaler. These elegant fluctuations soften the transition from outer band to surrounding space, cushioning the intensity of the brilliant hues and eliminating the problematic wedges of inert canvas from his earlier works. Though Noland increasingly suppresses expressionist features within his praxis, he maintains a need to allow the process of pouring and staining an active and highly emotive process in his practice, lending works like Blue an organic and painterly quality.
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