Kenneth Noland, who died today, was a major transitional figure in 20th-century art. Flying gliders in the Midwest as a teenager for the U.S. Air Force, he shared the wanderlust of Jackson Pollock.
Famously, Noland rejected his family, maintained a lifelong personal irascibility and stuck like a true believer to the ironclad laws of the picture plane. As such, Ken was tailor-made to be shoehorned into a philosophy, that of the great pictorial didactic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, a lapsed Marxist and a Sullivanian, grew tired of the romantic sensibility of Abstract Expressionism and Noland, who had the painterly vision of a laser, was the perfect studio embodiment of Clem's rules.
It is perhaps difficult to recapture the significance of Noland's beautiful yet remote targets to artists and critics growing up in the 1960s. The targets solved a lot of esthetic problems: they cleaned up the messiness of Johns and Rauschenberg, they had a touch more subjective beauty than Stella but not too much, they were cool, detached signs that even Warhol's soup cans had to defer to and they anticipated Judd's specific objects and the dematerialization movement of the ‘70s.
Because the targets were instantly established as the icons that they will always be in the art world, it was nigh impossible for Noland to match them, but the Chevrons came close. Still, the targets are timeless in the universal way that characterizes all profound painting. They are cosmological, yet atomic, commercial yet abstemious, beautiful yet remote, and they have a piece of God in them.
More importantly, to the shade of Greenberg and to us, they are perfect paintings. Goodbye, Ken.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).