Completed in 1964, during what many consider his most inspired period, Kenneth Noland’s Agate is a hallmark example of the artist’s acclaimed Chevron series. Noland embraced this form, one he thoroughly understood, in order to concentrate on what he called “a return to using the facility of the hand” (K. Noland quoted in K. Wilkin, Kenneth Noland Paintings 1958-1989, New York, 1989, p. 50.) Minimalist to the core, Chevron compositions are characterized by V-shaped bands of color applied directly to an unprimed canvas. Noland’s interest in clean lines, geometric shapes, and clear imagery signaled a departure from the Abstract Expressionists’ preoccupation with gesture, emotional content, and heavily articulated surfaces. Gone was the urge to emphasize deeply personal, esoteric matters and a fascination with purity of form was at the heart of Noland’s mission.
Agate mesmerizes the viewer with eight nested chevrons painted in arresting jewel-tones. Four bands expand from opposite corners of the canvas and scarcely meet at the composition’s center. Two symmetrical diamonds of unprimed canvas interrupt the two forms and create tension within Noland’s composition. This tension is quickly mediated by the boundaries of the picture plane as the bare surface extends to the infinite. Little depth or background is suggested, and the viewer does not look into the painting. Rather, it exists in space as a discrete and refined object. In concert, these disparate elements work together to form a stunning acrylic painting of unparalleled caliber.
Shifting from the large-scale compositions of Abstract Expressionism, Noland was critical in the development of a movement known as “Hard Edge Abstraction”, a term coined by critic Jules Langsner. Marked by discernibly clean forms, this trend describes paintings featuring intense, bold, unitary shapes. Noland’s paintings in particular are lauded for their fullness of color, impersonal execution, and smooth surface planes. A stylistic shift towards simplified imagery was not motivated simply by a need to refresh formal trends in art-making. Noland was perhaps more notably practicing theories Josef Albers posited in his 1963 book, Interaction of Color. By applying paint in thin opaque layers, without variation or hue, each tone reveals a particular weight, opacity, and density unique to the pigment. Although a similar intention was at the heart of Noland’s series of concentric circles such as Birth (1961), positioning bands of contrasting and complementary colors next to one another was critical to the artist’s understanding of how colors relate to one another. Agate features fantastic stripes of emerald, navy, burgundy, plum, and muted sapphire. Its astonishing colors appears to have effortlessly fallen into place. Noland has banished all sense of touch and appeals directly to the viewers’ sense of sight, and enriches our understanding of how colors interact and influence one another when situated side-by-side, rather than radially from a shared center.
After serving in Air Force during World War II, Noland enrolled in North Carolina’s esteemed Black Mountain College under the G.I. Bill, and he came under the tutelage of Josef and Anni Albers. Former Bauhaus professors and pioneers of twentieth-century modernism, the couple introduced him to theories about how colors interact with one another and nurtured in him a passion for color that would guide his practice throughout his career. Upon completing his education at Black Mountain, Noland began teaching at Catholic University in Washington D.C. and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. He ultimately met fellow artist Morris Louis, and the two travelled to New York City where they developed a kinship with Helen Frankenthaler and renowned art critic, Clement Greenberg. Seeing Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea, and learning first-hand of Frankenthaler’s signature technique of staining her canvases with heavily diluted paint, galvanized Noland’s practice and was a pivotal moment in his career. The mentorship of Frankenthaler, and certainly works such as Agate secured Noland’s status in the ranks of Post-Painterly Abstraction artists.
During his long and extraordinary career, Noland was included in numerous survey exhibitions abroad as well as in some of the United States’ most venerate institutions. These exhibits have come to define American art history as it is understood today. Perhaps most notably, Noland was one of eight artists selected to represent the United States at the Venice XXXII Biennale in 1964. His work was featured in Documenta 4, an exhibition curated by Greenberg called Post-Painterly Abstraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964, The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1965, and New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940-1970 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1969. In 1977 Noland was honored with a career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1977.
Noland’s decision to emphasize the chromatic and geometric rather than the gestural and narrative placed him in the school of Hard Edge Painting and earned respect of the era’s most enlightened art critics. Unlike the frenetic sweeps of Pollock or the astounding haze cast by Rothko, Agate takes a sharp, minimal approach. It is a masterpiece void of emotional content yet visually and historically rich. Noland once remarked, “I do open paintings… I like lightness, airiness, and the way color pulsates. The presence of the painting is all that's important" (K. Noland quoted in K. Moffett, Kenneth Noland, New York, 1977, p. 51). Focusing on compositional structure and the direct contrast of each band of color to its neighbor, Noland reinvigorated conversations surrounding abstraction and set the bar for painting as it is known today.