The Kenneth Noland estate has rolled out some sublime classic Nolands at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through Apr. 30, 2011. When you enter the gallery and envelop yourself in "Kenneth Noland Paintings 1958-68," peace will instantly descend: these circle stains and perfectly pasteled blobs on raw canvas are as deft as the abstract touch can get.
The show's catalogue, pretentiously titled "American Art for the Atomic Age: Decoding Kenneth Noland's Early Work" by Paul Hayes Tucker, attempts to link Ken's practice to the artist's Army service flying gliders, his encounters at Black Mountain with John Cage and Josef Albers, his fascination with Wilhelm Reich's orgone boxes, President Kennedy, gasoline station signs and a host of other signifying stimulants, asserting all the while what Noland "must have felt" or "came to understand."
This approach misses the point entirely. As Noland told Kathy Halbreich in 1977, when she tried to probe his emotions during an interview, "it's just about the materials." A small painting in this exhibition, Hot Spot (1960), is an exquisitely executed cynosure of squared circles, whose green core yields to the pulse of a white ring in a yellow doughnut. Just describing such a bit of sublimity is superfluous: for a short period Kenneth Noland had a shaman's touch, using an amount of paint that could fit into a Dixie Cup.
Morning Span (1964) is a giant road map to the soul, three orange parallel chevrons occupying a huge naked canvas like some grinning Yiddish Buddha.Play (1961), as well as Tile (1962, reproduced in the catalogue), spin towards you like dreidels -- they are not as reductive as the best Nolands, but they have the joy of the toy within them. "Childlike" is not a term one would apply to Noland, always the stern adult in life, but it describes much of what makes this show so winning visually.
For a sports-car-loving, temperamental macho man, Ken had a surprisingly feminine sense of color during his seminal period, the direct influence of two women painters who knew him well in Washington then (and who go unmentioned in Tucker's long essay), Mary Meyer and Anne Truitt. Noland learned how to let the light in through his skirts at the time. Soon afterwards, however, success eliminated his sympathetic touch, so crucial to the visual joy which this exhibition emits.
The death of Ken's inspiration begins as early as Summer Plain (1967), a stripe painting (reproduced in the show’s catalogue) as rigid as a prison gate.
. Kenneth Noland had one period of greatness, during which his ego and its mementoes past and future disappeared. That is what makes this show an ephemeral triumph.
"Kenneth Noland, Paintings: 1958-1968," Mar. 17-Apr. 30, 2011, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 534 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).