Kenneth Noland, 85; abstract painter, a founder of Washington Color School

Kenneth Noland, an influential abstract painter who founded the Washington Color School of painting, the only major development in 20th-century art to originate in the District, died Jan. 5.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kenneth Noland, an influential abstract painter who was a founder of the Washington Color School of painting, the only major development in 20th-century art to originate in the District, died Jan. 5 of kidney cancer at his home in Port Clyde, Maine. He was 85.

Mr. Noland, who painted geometric shapes in vivid colors on oversized canvases, devised a precise, cerebral style of painting that sought to create a sense that visual tension, motion and feeling could be found in color and shape. In the 1950s, he made a series of nearly 200 paintings of concentric circles -- sometimes called the "target paintings" -- that seemed to float in the center of the canvas, animated by pure, pulsing color.

"I wanted to have color be the origin of the painting," Mr. Noland told The Washington Post in 1977. "I was trying to neutralize the layout, the shape, the composition. . . . I wanted to make color the generating force."

Mr. Noland, who lived in Washington from 1949 to 1962, was teaching at Catholic University when he met painter Morris Louis in 1952. They were interested in breaking away from the prevailing aesthetic of abstract expressionism of the time and, in 1953, found the means to do so. That year, they visited New York and saw Helen Frankenthaler's "Mountains and Sea," in which she had poured thin washes of paint over an untreated canvas.

Louis and Mr. Noland adapted her technique for their more geometric paintings and developed a method of applying a thin, highly liquefied paint directly to an unprimed canvas, in effect creating a carefully controlled stain. Mr. Noland painted his vibrant circles, while Louis made a series of paintings consisting of vertical colored stripes.

Mr. Noland removed any representational hints from his paintings and any suggestion of what artists call "gesture," or the obvious movement of the hand or brush across a canvas. When he and Louis began to exhibit their work, Clement Greenberg and other powerful critics hailed them as the avatars of a new artistic vision. "They were able to effect a joint hammering-out of their intentions such as had rarely been paralleled since the first alliance of Picasso and [Georges] Braque" in Paris early in the 20th century, critic John Russell wrote in his 1981 book "The Meanings of Modern Art."

The so-called Washington Color School became an important part of the larger color-field movement, which included Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

"Mr. Noland is one of the artists who have decisively shaped American painting," New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote in 1977. "The fate of abstract art in America in the 1960s and '70s can scarcely be understood without some knowledge of his work."

When Louis died in 1962 at 49, Mr. Noland moved to New York and continued his artistic journey. He experimented with new shapes -- chevrons, diamonds and straight lines flowing across canvases as wide as 24 feet -- and expanded his color palette to include as many as 30 hues in a single painting.

"Noland's circle paintings, in particular, seemed to expel everything 'inessential' to painting," critic Robert Hughes wrote in his book "American Visions." "A blazing sensuousness of color carried them, intensified by the circular format; since the circles were centered in square canvases, their form seemed gravity-free, not to be read as solid substance. The color seemed to come out of the weave of the canvas, as though dyed into it."

Kenneth Clifton Noland was born April 10, 1924, in Asheville, N.C. His father was a pathologist and amateur painter who introduced his son to art. (Mr. Noland's surviving brother is a sculptor in Florida.)

After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, Mr. Noland attended Black Mountain College, the short-lived but hugely influential artistic incubator near his home town in North Carolina. He studied music with renegade composer John Cage and art with Willem de Kooning and Josef Albers before going to Paris for a year. Later in Washington, he drove a taxi, taught ceramics to children and at the Institute of Contemporary Arts before joining the faculty at Catholic.

In 1951, he married Cornelia Langer, the daughter of U.S. Sen. William Langer (R-N.D.). After they divorced, Mr. Noland was married and divorced two other times, to Stephanie Gordon and Peggy Schiffer.

Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Paige Rense, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, of Port Clyde; three children from his first marriage, William Noland of Durham, N.C., and Cady Noland and Lyn Noland, both of New York City; a son from his third marriage, Sam Noland of Cummaquid, Mass.; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Noland divided his time for years between New York and a Vermont farm once owned by poet Robert Frost. His later work included irregularly shaped canvases, paintings on sheet metal and the use of Plexiglas and other elements in his canvases.

He continued to have retrospectives at major museums around the world and continued to create new art almost until the end. In recent years, after experimenting with different shapes for many years, he returned to the circles and chevrons of his early style, applying the paint in thicker coats.

He fell out of favor in the 1980s and '90s, when critics dismissed his work as decorative and unemotional, with little to say about the social ills of the wider world.

But an anonymous Time magazine writer anticipated those views in 1969, writing: "Noland's supposedly impersonal canvases are vividly imbued with a dozen remarkably personal characteristics -- pride, imposed logic, arrogance, grace, wit, independence and inner tension. Noland conveys these qualities, not deliberately but intuitively."

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