“His color counts by its clarity and its energy; it is not there neutrally, to be carried by the design and drawing; it does the carrying itself” (C. Greenberg, “Louis and Noland,” Art International 4, no. 5 (1960); reprinted in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brien, vol. 4 (Chicago, 1986), p. 98).
“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).
Color Field painter Kenneth Noland, confidently championed by eminent art critic and theorist of American Modernism Clement Greenberg, was one of the last great colorists of the 20th century. The genre of hard-edge American abstraction that Noland pioneered revolved around the primacy of color; in the words of art critic Karen Wilkin, who penned a monograph of the artist, Noland “picked up where Matisse left off.” Noland achieved his gorgeously saturated chromatics with a characteristic “staining” technique, in which he applied thinned paint to the raw fibers of an unprimed canvas. This technique additionally served to eliminate the mark of the artist’s hand—any trace of painterly gesture— from his work, making his paintings feel non-relational and self-contained. While the artist worked with the chevron and the horizontal stripe, the concentric circle painting was Noland’s signature and the cosmologic concentric circle became a lifelong love for Noland. The artist first explored the form in the late ‘50s, when his unique deployment of it constituted a major aesthetic breakthrough for Modern art; he consolidated and refined the proto-circle the ‘60s, making it his hallmark; and he returned to the circle, albeit on a smaller scale, in his final works in the late ‘90s. A Warm Sound in a Gray Field, with its soft halos of pure color, is a quintessential example of Noland’s concentric circles at a time when his exploration of the sphere had reached its height and his color vocabulary had reached a robust maturity.
In the work at hand, bands of color in varying sizes pulse outward from a central orb, seemingly contracting and expanding as they maintain unity with their pictorial support. The viewer’s eye takes in the entire form at once for a spiritual or metaphysical serenity: the piece evokes the ritualistic mandala, or the rippling cosmos. With its crepuscular center, thick orange band, and dove-gray exterior ring, this painting is a particularly salient manifestation of Noland’s belief that pulsating, clear, pure color lent itself to powerful, even transcendent, presence. In A Warm Sound in a Gray Field, color and sound—at once material and immaterial, elements of the physical world and some inexplicable magic—move in and out of one another in a synaesthetic dance. Noland achieved the effect of a musical composition in paint by attending to the specificity of his materials: his fastidious staining technique drew upon both the permeability of unprimed canvas and the chromatic purity that resulted from thinning paint. The adroit Clement Greenberg brings the physicality underlying these paintings to the fore: “The naked fabric acts as a generalizing and unifying field; and at the same time its confessed wovenness and porousness suggests a penetrable, ambiguous plane, opening up the picture from the back so to speak” (Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland,” Art International 4, no. 5 (1960); reprinted in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Critcism, ed. John O’Brien, vol. 4 (Chicago, 1986) p. 99). Noland’s distinctive technique of paint application was only advanced—heightened and balanced—by his use of economical, abstract geometric forms.
Much of Noland’s initial interest in the physicality of his materials was catalyzed by a studio visit, oft-referenced to the point to being lore, to the then-24-year-old Helen Frankenthaler’s New York studio. In addition to exposing Noland to the New York School and honing the artist’s critical faculties, Greenberg brought Noland and his fellow painter Morris Louis to Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953. In seven or eight of her recent compositions including “Mountains and Sea”, Frankenthaler had applied pigment diluted with turpentine onto raw canvas, a technique she gleaned from Jackson Pollock’s 1951 black-and-white stain paintings, which used thinned black enamel. Inspired by Frankenthaler’s work, Noland saw the possibility of appropriating techniques from action painting—an artistic style that was extremely popular in America at the time—and moving them into fresh new territory, in service of a lucid and precise style: Greenbergian Post-Painterly Abstraction. Noland combined the newly acquired staining technique with an intimate knowledge of color theory (acquired under Josef Albers’s tutelage) and a rigorous design ethos of geometric abstraction. The result was a new visual language—flat and self-contained, free of gesture or external reference, strikingly minimalist in shape and color—that would put color field painting on the worldwide stage.