To me, he is the supreme colorist of this period. I consider him the heir to Matisse" --Diane Waldman.
Towering in scale with bold impermeable colors, Circle is a profound example from Kenneth Noland's early breakthrough series of targets. Executed in 1958 during the height of his investigations in color and technique on different variations of the sphere, Circle's concentric rings create a unique expressionistic vitality and optical vibration with masterful harmony both with its centrality and symmetry. Since 1958, Noland's paintings have been regarded as the quintessential specimens of Color Field Painting. His staining technique endowed the surface of his paintings with a revolutionary degree of unity with the canvas, and along with Morris Louis and Jules Olitski, Noland was championed by Clement Greenberg, the most influential critic and arbiter of Twentieth Century American Modernism as well as the foremost theorist on advanced modernist painting. Cited by Andy Williams has his personal favorite painting, Circle stands out as one of Noland's greatest masterpieces. (A. Williams in personal correspondence to K. Noland)
Blooming and pulsating with light, Circle is simultaneously dense and fluid, with the prominent raw canvas--a defining feature of Noland's oeuvre--dramatizing the bold, stained colors that in turn create a virtual spinning of the colored bands. Stabilized by a central circle of brilliant red, the rings of ochre, white and black separated by bands of unprimed canvas create an optical impression of the bands protruding towards the viewer while at the same time retaining their unity with the flat surface of the pictorial support. Embodied throughout the painting, with its eight concentric rings, in brilliant, saturated hues, the dramatic power of the image is heightened to the utmost degree while simultaneously preserving the integrity and unity of the gestalt shape of the target.
The first to observe that hard edges and geometry tauten the effect of stain, while the stain in turn softens the geometry, inhibiting it from becoming too rigid or brittle, Noland's effects of staining soon dovetailed his design--both serving to open the picture and to identify color with surface. Here, raw canvas is allowed to function both as its literal self, as well as a space to generate light, air, and atmosphere. "I do open paintings," Noland emphasized. "I like lightness, airiness, and the way color pulsates. The presence of the painting is all that's important" (K. Noland quoted in K. Moffet, Kenneth Noland, New York, 1977, p. 51). At the outermost edge, a trail of freehand brushing, characteristic of his earliest targets, creates the illusion of energy thrown off by centrifugal motion. Abstract Expressionistic in derivation, this outer ring intensifies the drama, and sets off the circles as a single configuration. As a result, the most radical impact of the circles is their feeling of weightlessness, which comes not only from their absence of orientation--which Noland often reconsidered in his individual works--but also from the flatness of the staining itself and of their geometric design.
Framing the target on four sides, blue and orange pigment emerges out of Circle's outermost ring. Having been conscious of the possibilities of shaping his own compositions from the beginning, Noland insisted, "Making the Circles really had to do with shaping. I used a square very consciously. Shaping pictures in the 1950s was a slightly unconscious thing" (K. Noland, quoted in, K. Wilkin, Kenneth Noland, New York, 1990, p. 23). For Noland, deciding the limits of his work was a separate step. He believed working outside of a preexisting shape was integral to abstractness, for it presupposed that the artists thought of his picture as an independent object whose limits are determined only by aesthetic considerations, and not by accepting a given set of proportions and dimensions. And yet, often the size of his targets was dictated by the height and reach of the artist himself. Recalling Leonardo da Vinci's famous Vetruvian Man, the size of these paintings were determined by human scale, and literally made in mans own image. And while many of Noland's canvases were dictated by Willem de Kooning's statement of 1951 that he had no use for excess space stating that "If I stretch my arms next to the rest of myself and wonder where my fingers are--that is all the space I need as a painter," Noland executed a few, more advantageous, larger examples, including Circle (W. de Kooning, quoted in Willem de Kooning, New York, 1951, n.p.). Taking his larger canvases off their wooden work stretchers, he stapled his grander works--those more than six square feet--to the floor. A practice he learned from two of his primary influences, Jackson Pollock and David Smith, as a result the color and circles of these larger canvases opened up, creating a heightened ethereal experience for their viewers.
Working his way from the center of the canvas outward within a rigid compositional format, Noland's color schemes developed in a similar progression of repeated concentric images as his former professor Josef Albers, with whom he studied in 1947 at Black Mountain College. Concentrating on color as his primary concern, Noland rigorously experimented with varying color palettes. "Noland's search for the ideal Platonic form has crystallized into an art in which color and form are held in perfect equilibrium," Diane Waldman explained. "The spare geometry of his form heightens the emotional impact of his color. The rational and the felt, distilled form and sensuous color intermesh to create a magic presence. His color is space. Color is all" (D. Waldman, Kenneth Noland: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, 1977, p. 36).
With its fiery red and yellow solar tones superimposed on cascades of radiating blue and orange pigment, Circle posseses the crackling energy of celestial bodies. By accepting certain characteristics of the stain as a positive, this etherealness, toughened by crisp pictorial logic and thus by the tenseness of his unities, became very much part of Noland's personal sensibility. When Noland painted his first Circles in the late 1950s, they announced the beginning of a new "cool" approach (in Marshall MacLuhan's sense of the world) in American art, a new sense of detachment that proved to be an outstanding characteristic of much of what was subsequently produced in the 1960s and 1970s (K. Moffet, Kenneth Noland, New York, 1977, p. 14).