KENNETH NOLAND (1924-2010)
KENNETH NOLAND (1924-2010)
KENNETH NOLAND (1924-2010)
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KENNETH NOLAND (1924-2010)
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Property from the Estate of Sondra Gilman
KENNETH NOLAND (1924-2010)

Lunar Episode

KENNETH NOLAND (1924-2010)
Lunar Episode
signed 'KENNETH NOLAND' (lower right); signed again and titled 'NOLAND LUNAR EPISODE' (on the reverse)
Magna on canvas
68 x 70 in. (172.7 x 177.8 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
French & Co., New York
Carter Burden Collection, New York
Blum Helman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner
N. Frackman, "Arts Reviews," Arts Magazine, September 1974, vol. 49, p. 54, no. 1 (illustrated).
K. Moffett, Kenneth Noland, New York, 1977, no. 72 (illustrated).
Kenneth Noland: The Circle Paintings 1956-1963, exh. cat., Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, 1993, p. 10, fig. 23 (illustrated).
I. Barker, Anthony Caro: A Quest for the New Sculpture, London, 2004, p. 88 (illustrated).
Alfred Jensen: The Number Paintings, exh. cat., New York, PaceWildenstein, 2006, p. 14, fig. 5 (illustrated).
New York, French & Co., Kenneth Noland Paintings, October-November 1959, no. 27 (illustrated).
New York, Marlborough Gallery Inc., Selected Works from the Collection of Carter Burden, May-June 1974, p. 15 (illustrated).
Visual Arts Gallery of NYC, Kenneth Noland: Early Circle Paintings, January 1975.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Toledo Museum of Art and Denver Art Museum, Kenneth Noland: A Retrospective, April-May 1977, no. 10 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Painted in 1959, Kenneth Noland’s Lunar Episode is an early example of the artist’s bold and innovative paintings that transformed the gestural constructs of Abstract Expressionism into essays that celebrate the purity of color and form. “Noland’s name stands for a particular kind of American painting, writes critic Karen Wilkin, “one based on the potency of color,” and his Circles form the first wave of this exciting new artistic narrative (K. Wilkin, Kenneth Noland, New York, 1990, p. 7). In the present work, the concentric circles of vibrant yellow, orange, and warm pink set against a rich monochromatic gray and blue background exemplifies the artist’s stated aim of showing expressive elements that have no necessary correlation either to each other, or to the material world. For the first time in the history of Western art, Noland argued, paint had been released from its allegorical functions.

Measuring six feet square, this monumental canvas is dominated by a series of energetic concentric circles surrounded by passages of blue and gray pigment. The chromatic intensity of the yellow, orange and pink circles pulsates, and draws the eye into the center of the composition. Surrounding this target-like motif is a swath of evocative blues and grays, a protective halo of cool complimentary hues that act in counterbalance to the vibrancy of the inner rings of warm color. This sets the scene for a highly active and energetic surface. Much like Mark Rothko’s floating fields of color, in Lunar Episode the ‘action’ in Noland’s painting is not in the subject matter (for there isn’t any), it is in the way that his different passages of color collide and interact with each other. “Noland’s art owes much of its truly phenomenal originality to the way it transcends the alternative between the painterly and geometrical”, wrote the influential critic—and ardent champion of Noland—Clement Greenberg, enshrining the artist’s work in the postwar canon of Western twentieth century alongside other Abstractionists such as Jackson Pollock (C. Greenberg, “Louis and Noland”, in T. Fenton, Kenneth Noland: An Important Exhibition of Paintings from 1958 through 1989, exh. cat., Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York, 1989, p. 16).

“His paintings can be seen as paradigms of their period, images that define the best abstract painting of their time,” writes Karen Wilkin (Ibid.). This can be most succinctly seen in Noland’s incorporation of raw canvas as an important part of his paintings. Already pioneered by artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, the ‘soak stain’ technique of pouring liquid pigment directly onto the surface of unprimed canvas, allowed Noland to add another dimension to the physicality of his work. Along with his friend and fellow artist Morris Louis, Noland adopted this technique to open-up his paintings, and move them away from the representative traditions of art history. “The naked fabric acts as a generalizing and unifying field,” Greenberg wrote, “and at the same time its confessed wovenness and porousness suggest a penetrable, ambiguous plane, opening up the picture from the back so to speak” (Ibid. p. 15).

Studying at North Carolina’s legendary Black Mountain College, Noland came under the tutelage of Josef and Anni Albers who taught him theories from the Bauhaus and ignited a passion for color that would be pivotal throughout his career. It was here that Noland was introduced to the work of Mondrian, and the Dutch artist’s colorful geometric blocks would have a profound impact on him and his understanding of the power of color. It was also while taking courses at the college in 1950 that he met Frankenthaler and through his friendship with Clement Greenberg, Noland was also introduced to the world of Abstract Expressionism and the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Through a shared interest in Pollock’s work, Noland became friends with the painter Morris Louis who took him to Frankenthaler’s studio. Seeing her groundbreaking work with paint poured on unprimed canvas (like the triumphant Mountains & Sea of 1952), struck Noland, and he began to experiment with a similar technique of soaking and staining.

Noland’s friendship with both Frankenthaler and Louis was fundamental to his development as an artist. He saw how Pollock’s famous ‘drip’ paintings pointed the way for abstraction, proving that painting didn’t have to be ‘about something.’ But it was Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking canvases that really opened his eyes to the possibilities of what pigment on (or, more accurately, absorbed into) canvas could do. Frankenthaler’s work, he later admitted, was the bridge between Pollock and what was possible.

Noland’s Circles, of which Lunar Episode is a superlative early example, make the most of a deceptively simple device, but one that allowed him to concentrate on color and form. “I knew what a circle could do, he said. “Both eye focus on it. It stamps itself out, like a dot. This in turn, causes ones vision to spread, as in a mandala in Tantric art” (K. Noland, quoted by K. Wilkin, op. cit., p. 8). It also forced him to consider the smallest details of edges, placement, density; how wide the bands were, how thickly or thinly they were painted, how far from the next band it was painted, how far from the perimeter or center of the canvas it was painted – all as crucial in the execution of a successful painting as the color. His Circles were crucial to the rest of his career, as he focused on compositional structure and the direct contrast of each colored band to its neighbors and the painting at large. "I do open paintings," Noland maintained. "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). In Lunar Episode, Noland’s decisive compositions are a significant advancement from the more painterly works by the New York School, and primed the debate on where the future of painting.

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