Kenneth Noland: Stripes/Plaids/Shapes | PACE

Kenneth Noland put himself under a lot of pressure to achieve such chilled-out art. He’s been called a “minimalist” or “colour field” painter, with his large canvases banded with simple patterns - or just stripes. In fact, Stripes/ Plaids/ Shapes, the title of this show, Noland’s first monograph exhibition in the UK for over 20 years, pretty much sums up what’s on display.

So, where’s the pressure from? In the technique. Noland, who was active from the 1950s until his death in 2010, called it “one shot painting”. His huge expensive canvases were left unprimed, ready to suck up whatever the painter gave to them, immediately. He used acrylic paints. This means that whatever gets applied first, stays, and can’t be altered.

Kenneth Noland - ‘Via Mojave’ (1968)

To make things still more stressful for himself, Noland’s artistic stance - in reaction to the ego-fuelled Abstract Expressionists, whose every visible brushstroke was a sign of genius - was to eliminate all traces of his hand. His unprimed surfaces are meant to be as smooth as possible.

Take the example pictured above, Via Mojave, from 1968. The yellow, orange and white bands are, like so many other paintings from this show, calming. The pattern is simple. The painter is invisible.

Look closely though and signs of strain emerge. Little puffs and clouds of colour mar the uniformity. Stray spots of paint wander outside of their lanes. Perfection is impossible when you only have one shot.

In this way, Noland differs from his fellow minimalist Dan Flavin, who I featured on here last week, or from Bridget Riley, who conducted similar experiments in flat-coloured patterns at a similar time. Both of those artists aim for a machine-like purity in their abstraction.

Noland’s more homely, more human somehow. He’s feeling under pressure but he’s trying to keep things as smooth and calm as possible on the surface. He’s even relatable!

Kenneth Noland: Stripes/Plaids/Shapes is at PACE (London). 25 January - 25 February 2023