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Kenneth Noland Photo

Kenneth Noland

American Painter

Born: April 10, 1924 - Asheville, North Carolina
Died: January 5, 2010 - Port Clyde, Maine
"I think of painting without subject matter as music without words."
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Kenneth Noland Signature
"With artists of my own generation there was at first no group identity - and never a clique."
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Kenneth Noland Signature
"As time goes on, I realize more and more that, beginning in the early '30s, David Smith began setting the precedent for what was to come later for many of us."
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Kenneth Noland Signature
"For me context is the key - from that comes the understanding of everything."
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Kenneth Noland Signature
"Because of this the representation I'm interested in is of those things only the eye can touch."
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Kenneth Noland Signature
"Context begins with other artists - seniors and mentors."
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Kenneth Noland Signature

Summary of Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland's Color Field painting, which was categorized by Clement Greenberg as belonging to the "Post-Painterly Abstraction" movement, was some of the most focused and consistent art produced in mid-20th-century America. After studying under such artists as Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers and working alongside fellow second-generation Color Field abstractionists like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Noland developed a signature style based on simplified abstract forms, including targets, chevrons, and stripes. Noland's paintings are characterized by strikingly minimalist compositions of shape and color. In this regard, Noland's art has influenced a wide range of contemporary abstractionists who continue to experiment with highly simplified forms and pure saturated color.


  • Noland's concentric circles were not targets, the diagonals of his chevrons did not indicate receding space, and his broad horizontal stripes were decidedly not literal horizons. Each was solely a means of exploring pure color. This reductive approach also foreshadowed the emergence of Minimalism.
  • Noland applied Josef Albers's theory of "the interaction of colors" to his own compositions, which explore the relationships between contrasting or complementary colors; painted in thin yet opaque layers, each tone reveals its particular characteristic weight, density, and transparency.
  • As a member of the Color Field contingent that practiced hard-edge abstraction, Noland was interested in removing all texture, gesture, and emotional content from his paintings. He even executed some works on shaped canvases that were filled by their compositions from edge to edge, leaving no marginal space for suggestions of depth or background. In these shaped works, the viewer no longer looks "into" the picture; instead, the work of art coexists in the viewer's space as a complete object.

Biography of Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland Photo

Kenneth Noland was born on April 10, 1924 in Asheville, North Carolina, one of five sons of Harry Caswell Noland and Bessie Noland. Noland's father was a physician; Noland later described him as a "Sunday painter," an amateur artist who painted in his spare time. Having access to his father's brushes, paints, and canvases, the young Noland played and experimented with these materials, which instilled in him a love of painting and the visual arts. Another early influence was an exhibition of Monet's paintings that he viewed at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Important Art by Kenneth Noland

Progression of Art

Tiger Lilies

This early oil painting dates close to Noland's first visit to Helen Frankenthaler's studio, when the artist was clearly still working under Abstract Expressionism's influence and trying to find his own painterly voice. Noland's early style is exemplified by visible brushwork, monochromatic palette, and calligraphic markings; the painting's title indicates that he had not yet ceased making references to the material world in his art.

Oil and enamel paint on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC



The late 1950s marked an important turning point in Noland's career. In Ex Nihilo (a Latin phrase meaning "out of nothing"), Noland began painting simplified forms and balancing carefully selected colors in order to create, as the painting's title suggests, something out of nothing. However, Noland had yet to find his signature style. Unlike his later renditions of his circles and targets, where color itself is the subject, here he hinted at the representational or even the figurative. The gray-ringed, amoeba-like form resembles an egg being fertilized from its left side, while the innermost area (painted in gold, pink, and pale blue) could be some kind of zygote. We seem to be witnessing the conception of form, as order is manifested out of chaos.

Magna on canvas - Private Collection



This work, which places concentric circles on a perfectly square canvas, marks one of Noland's very first attempts at painting basic forms and archetypal patterns. Beginnings's circles are slightly irregular, an effect that may or may not have been intentional. Their varying colors complement or contrast with one another, creating a lively perceptual effect for the viewer. The final, jagged penumbra of black paint that frames these inner circles reinforces the improvisational feel of the whole work, pulling the viewer's attention beyond the nested circular forms and imbuing the whole with a burst of energy.

Magna on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC



In this mature Circle canvas, Noland painted three concentric circles in complementary colors: yellow, magenta, and red. Although the viewer may attempt to see the circles as receding into space, they remain flat on the picture plane. Rather than attempting to create an illusion of depth, the artist focuses on the relational qualities of the three colors (how they make one another appear brighter or darker, softer or more intense) as well as the contrast between the vibrant, hard-edged rings and their neutral background. The title hints at the circle's universal symbolism of life and eternity, yet there is no specific subject matter in this totally abstract work: the only "birth" or creation that has occurred is that of the painting itself.

Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York



In the early 1960s Noland began painting chevrons, or sharply defined V-shaped forms. This shift from circles to straight lines gave him the opportunity to start afresh in his exploration of color relationships, arranging contrasts of colors that interacted side-by-side rather than radially from a shared center. Shoot is an arrangement of four nested chevrons painted in alternating cool and warm colors. Rather than read this canvas from left to right, as we might do with a narrative scene or a landscape, we automatically concentrate on the center of this strictly symmetrical abstract arrangement on its square canvas. The point of the outermost chevron makes contact with the lower edge, thus creating a tension between Noland's composition and the boundaries of its picture plane.

Acrylic on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


Bend Sinister

In some Chevron paintings, such Bend Sinister, Noland placed his compositions off-center against neutral grounds. Although Noland's titles are often difficult to decipher, this one makes a clear allusion to the painting's structure: "sinister" is the Latin word for "left," the direction in which the chevron forms point. The asymmetry of this work and this use of fewer colors with more contrast adds to the piece's visual drama, and the placement of the chevrons pointing downwards from the top edge of the canvas reverses the viewer's expectations of where and how to look.

Acrylic on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC


Graded Exposure

In the late 1960s, Noland ventured into new territory with his Striped paintings. With this work, which measures nearly 19 feet wide, Noland painted his stripes progressively thinner towards the top, as if the image were receding into the distance. Additionally, the rainbow-like effect of coloring suggests a horizon that extends beyond the canvas. This visual effect, however, should not be confused with any particular subject matter or context, since Noland repeatedly stated that the content of his art is pure color and form, and nothing more. As he said in an interview of 1977, "I wanted to have color be the origin of the painting, I was trying to neutralize the layout, the shape, the composition. I wanted to make color the generating force." By working on a monumental scale, he has also granted pure abstraction the same status as traditional history painting or landscape painting.

Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection



Noland said in a 1977 interview, "Paintings have their own boundaries, their own zones, their own limits." His innovation of shaped canvases allowed him to vary the boundaries of his works, creating new effects of weight and movement without resorting to traditional illusionism or perspective. Whereas Noland's Chevrons and Circles series created visual tension between color and blank background, Vault is animated from edge to edge with color. And, unlike the square canvases of other paintings, this shaped canvas allows its support to echo and reinforce the wedges of color that are the work's sole content. By unifying composition and support while eliminating representational imagery, pictorial space, and any evidence of his own brushwork, Noland succeeds in making the interplay of color and form his only subject.

Acrylic on canvas

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Kenneth Noland Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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