The opening tonight of Kenneth Noland's retrospective at both the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Corcoran Gallery of Art will be a celebration. The color painter left Washington before we had a chance to thank him. Now, after 15 years away, Noland has returned.

He lived in Washington between 1949 and 1962, and it was here - with the last Morris Louis, his friend and "painting buddy" - that Noland made his breakthrough. We didn't know it at the time. Through the last years of the '60s artists by the dozens here learned from his example, from his colors and his formats, his clarity and courage, his unwavering allegiance to wholly abstract art.

By then he had moved on to New York and Vermont and wider fame.

The art magazines insisted that Noland was a master, that he had glimpsed the future of painting, that his was the one way. Noland had become something of a legend. But we rarely saw his pictures, and never his face.

Noland is at work beneat the skylights paintings, the 30-foot-wide large paintings, the 30-foot-wide bands, the polygons the "plaids," that comprise the newer half of his large retrospective.

He is surrounded by a cadre of his allies - Diane Waldman from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Hirshhorn's Charles Millard, writer Andres Hudson and critic Michael Fried (the Rhodes Scholar, poet, professor and historian whose brilliant, dense critiques helped Noland achieve [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. They are there to show their loyalty and to other reassurance affection and advice.

The artist is deciding how to hand his paintings, "[WORD ILLEGIBLE]" the show. His friends make small suggestions. They smile at him, but he does not often smile back.

Noland is not at all flamboyant. He is issuing sharp orders to the Corcoran's preparaters, the young men in white gloves who will hang his pictures exactly where he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] them. "No lower, lower. There." As soon as he has spoken, his authority dissolves. One sees in Noland's face a vacancy, a tension. Indecision in his eyes.

Nothing of the sort is apparent in his pictures. Their beauty rests in part on their daring clarity. One sees nothing bluffed or messy in the sequence of decisions that have produced the balanced rightness of their sizes and their scales and their unexpected colors. Noland's many champions often hymn his "toughness." Noland in the flesh does not seem tough at all.

He is 53 years old. "Specificity is my pleasure," he says, but his attention wanders and his sentences seew intentionally vague. He is asked about his years here about the early days of Washington color painting. "You know all that has been said about who did what and when - you'll notice I've said nothing. I have made no claims.I'm reluctant to . . ." He pauses. He looks around the room.

Noland does not want to speak of Tom Downing or Howard Mehring, both of whom he taught at catholic University, nor about Gene Davis, who he also knew. He says, "The light is very good here, it's warmer than Verment's. I've noticed that again."

"I learned," he says, "from the Phillips and the Freer and the National Gallery of Art. And from the painters, too: from Joe Summerford. Bob Gates, Jacob Kainen, Bill Calfee." What did he learn? "The artists here were serious. ANd every time we got together we'd talk about art."

The show is almost up. Noland looks at it again. Suddenly he breaks into a little dance, part Charleston and part Jig.

Kenneth Noland was born on April 10, 1924, in Asheville, N.C.His father was an amateur painter, his an amateur pianist.Noland joined the air force during World War II (he was trained as a glider pilot and cryptographer), and in 1946 he entered Black Mountain College on the G.I. Bill. The school, he notes, was tiny ("30 teachers, 90 studens") but its faculty, in retrospect, seems enormously distinguished. Noland studied with Ilya Bolotowsky and met William and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Merce Cunningham. Noland gives small credit to painter Jose Albers, who headed Black Mountain's art department, and whose strict geometries and tuned zones of flat color seem to have prefigured much of Noland's later art.

"Let me tell you one very simple fact," he says. "Albers was on sabbatical almost all the time while I was at Black Mountain." Noland went to Paris in 1948, where he studied with scupltor Ossip Zadkine. Returning to the United States, he settled in Washington in 1949.

In Washington, Noland at first floundered. He painted in the styles of artists he admired. particularly paul Klee. Save for two tiny studies, of which one suggests Albers. Noland's early art has been excluded from his show. "What you see here is the cream." Noland says.

Noland's early "mature" paintings, the "targets" at the Hirshhborn, no longer startle quite as much as they did when new, but their beauty is still stunning. In them one sees dying the anguished, active brushwork of the abstract expressionism New York school. Loke other color paintings of the last years of the '50s, they have something in them that is cool and formal, something that predicts the reductionist esthetic that would sweep the world of art. Drawing is excluded so is representation, narrative, symbolism. All is held in place, save color, which soars free.

"I wanted to have color be the origin of the painting." Noland has said. "I was trying to neutralize the layout, the shape, the composition . . .. I wanted to make color the generating force."

"Noland and his colleagues kept their color fields open and returning to set formats such as concentric rings and parallel bands, let color make the art.

Were Noland's pictures not so fine to look at, many would have long since drowned beneath the sea of words, the exclusionary praise, that described them as a portent of art's inevitable future. Much of the praise was overblown, arrogant and unreadable: but Noland's art does not need to be protected by a wall of dogma. If one responds to colors, one will feel the strength, the beauty of his show.

His pictures are not "flat," they pulsate and they zoom. Size, scale, extension, proportion are all organized by Noland to serve his varied colors. He spins a dozen dials - this one adjusts the width of bands, that one brings to play optical illusion or textural complexity or odd, baroque perspectives - but all his subtle tuning aims at letting color sing.

He says, "Art is practice - in both senses of the word. It's a practice a profession; and it's also keeping oneself limber." The paintings in his retrospective, and in smaller show at Middendorf Lane, 2014 P St. (where his prices range from $12,000 to $55,000), are not universally successful. His "cat's eye" series, and some of his later "plaids," do not show him at his best. But to stand before "Inner Way," a "target" at the Hirshhorn, or "Trans Median I." at the Corcoran, is to sense the presence of a first-rate artist. One need not take sides - with those who see in Nolands all of painting's future nor with those who sneer at his "decorative narrowness" ' to envy the collector who has a Noland on the wall!

He is driving to the Georgetown home of his former wife, Cornelia. Noland's mood has lightened. He speaks of Billy Kilmer ("How can he keep playing - they've going to break his back"), of the late Duncan Phillips (who bought a Klee-like Noland when the painter was flat broke), of the studios that he rented when he lived in Washington. "They've hung the Matisse cut-outs across the Mall. Tough luck," says Cornelia. Noland smiles and curses.

"No," he says, still smiling, "it went really good today."