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Was Kenneth Noland D.C.'s greatest painter?

Matt Schudel

Kenneth Noland died Jan. 5 at his home in Port Clyde, Maine, at the age of 85. He and Morris Louis were the founders of the Washington Color School, an influential branch of abstract painting that flourished as one of the most important artistic movements of the mid-20th century.

It also happened to be the only major homegrown artistic movement from Washington that gained traction and had a strong influence on the larger world. There were other members of the Washington Color School -- including Gene Davis, Thomas Downing and Howard Mehring -- but Louis and Noland were its most important figures.

(We've posted an online gallery of Noland's work to check out.)

Kenneth Noland came to Washington in 1949 after studying at the celebrated Black Mountain College, which was not far from his home in Asheville, N.C. He and Louis, who was 12 years older, formed a creative partnership that moved modern art beyond the abstract expressionism of the 1940s. Their great advance was to use pure color as the defining point of their work.

They were championed by the influential Clement Greenberg, who was more powerful than any other art critic before or since (and who ended up with a substantial collection of Noland paintings, by the way).

Morris Louis died in 1962 at age 49. Noland left Washington that year and moved to New York, and his career continued to blossom with major international exhibitions.

In his excellent book "The Meanings of Modern Art," John Russell wrote: "Morris Louis was by 12 years the older of the two, but it was Noland who had the kind of outgoing, combative temperament which thrives on the definition of ideas: and for the three years -- 1952-55 -- of their close friendship they were able to effect a joing hammering-out of their intentions such as had rearely been paralleled since the first alliance of Picasso and Braque."

Here are some of Russell's other comments about Noland and Louis and how their art was such an important of the larger "color-field" school of abstraction:

"Louis was physically frail, and by temperament he was a quiet, inward sort of person. Noland liked to bring everything into the open, and to go to work from a position of armored certainty."

"Noland did not want overtones of any kind, anywhere."

"A mature Noland is a statement-system in which clear thoughts find clear expression and there is never a conflict of intention, never a second thought, never an evocative fuzz."

"With a chevron, a set of immensely elongated stripes or five or six batons of pure color laid side by side, Louis and Noland gave back to painting a purity and an intensity of feeling such as we needed but did not dare to hope could still exist."

Noland was married four times, and I managed to speak to two of his ex-wives and one of his sons when I was preparing the obituary. His first wife, Cornelia Langer, was the daughter of a U.S. senator from North Dakota, and she told me that they first met in the early 1950s, Noland was selling his drawings for $6 apiece.

Noland was a somewhat reluctant but generally accommodating subject for journalists, as you can see in the 1977 televised interview below. But, if you read enough about him, you'll see that he never claimed to be a leader of an artistic movement or even a leading figure on the art world. These things were true, of course, even if he was too modest to admit it, and he may well be the most important painter who ever came out of Washington.

By Matt Schudel  |  January 7, 2010; 11:25 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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