Kenneth Noland passed away in early January. Although this is several weeks after the fact, my response to the Roberta Smith article in the Sunday Times has led to a more contemplative approach to the strange journey of painting that I have observed during my many years as an artist and art lover.

Mark Dagley has written a moving and quite personal homage to Noland in the Brooklyn Rail. His personal relationship with Color Field painters when he was younger sounds so similar to my own early response to the works by those painters:

I never met Kenneth Noland, but as a teenaged artist in the Washington D.C. area during the 1970s, I couldn’t help but be heavily influenced by him and the rest of the Color Field painters. Their work surrounded me, in the museums and the art galleries, even on the asphalt of the streets (okay, that was in Philly, but I saw it on TV). I watched these artists, who’d ascended the heights in my infancy, tower mightily above, only to be knocked back down years later, but in my eyes they were never anything less than Great.

When I arrived in New York City, winter of ’79, at the ripe old age of 21, I felt like the last surviving admirer of what I’d come to know as post-painterly abstraction. It seemed the world had moved on, and nobody had bothered to tell me. None of the young artists I met found Kenneth Noland the least bit interesting, let alone a master painter. I didn’t even mention the Washington Color School to my newly acquired colleagues. “What the hell is that, some kind of kindergarten?” would have been their likely response.

But several decades and plenty of stupid trends have passed. Post and Neo no longer apply as current art world terms. A place has been made for almost everything, and everyone, under the sun. Kenneth Noland has claimed his corner fairly, squarely.

Bagley encapsulates much of the Sturm und Drang around painting over the last 40 years, a topic I have addressed repeatedly on this blog. Here’s his concise overview:

Consensus amongst a new critical establishment concluded that the framework constructed around painting had become unsustainable. Painting was now considered retrograde, artistically bankrupt, its principles undefendable. Color Field painting was easy prey.

Michael Fried, who had written so eloquently of Noland’s early career, abandoned the sinking ship of high modernist painting, while Rosalind Krauss launched articulate attacks on the notion on modernist criticism itself in Artforum and October magazines.

Things were looking so bleak for painters in 1969 that Joseph Kosuth, in a footnote to his landmark text “Art after Philosophy,” concluded “the conceptual level of the work of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Ron Davis, Anthony Caro, John Hoyland, Dan Christensen et al. is so dismally low, that any that is there is supplied by the critics promoting it…”

By 1974 Donald Judd was quoted as saying “It looks like painting is finished.” It would be almost 40 years before the funeral celebration came to an end.

Noland seemed to find his way through this well-publicized dismissal and denouncing however. When he passed away last month, he had an exhibit up at Lesley Feeley Fine Art with work that many art observers found fresh and timeless.

I always held Nolan’s work with respect. I was irritated when his signatory circles were summarily categorized as geometric or as just more Pop art. He was painterly, and his dedication to his craft is legendary.

I was moved by this Noland quote from a symposium held at the University of Hartford in March of 1988:

I’ve followed other artists gratefully and I hope I’ve also followed my own path….sometimes along side other artists. I’ve also been willing to share any help that I could give to any other artist. I love art and I love the life of art and I only wish that the real life of art could affect social change in a good way and that the invasion of commercialism in art and the invasion of entertainment into all areas of our lives hadn’t brought some of the worst features of our culture into the realm of art.

Noland RIP indeed.

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