Painted in 1977, Aforethought heralded a major turning point in Kenneth Noland’s work. It was one of the first works to make a significant departure from the format the artist had been using since the start of the decade: a departure that, paradoxically, also signaled a return to techniques he had used in the past.
The circle had been the ubiquitous motif in Noland’s work until the early sixties, at which point he started to experiment with rhombus-shaped canvasses before concentrating on vast, horizontally orientated, stripe paintings. As with Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings, these horizontal works had no internal point of focus and therefore encouraged the viewer to comprehend the picture as whole. The ground of the paintings was typically pale, allowing bands of colour to stretch the field of vision. At the start of the 1970s however, Noland began experimenting again, this time with irregular polygon canvasses. His initial works in this experimental format featured bold chromatic incursions into the centre of the canvasses, but by 1977 these jagged compositions had given way to the same mode of delineating space that Noland had used so successfully with his horizontal paintings. The stripes that returned to his work were now put in the service of describing the perimeter of the polygons, with the centre ground – as is the case with Aforethought – left mute and subordinate.
It is insightful, when considering Aforethought, to reflect upon the process Noland used to create these irregularly shaped works. A large piece of rectangular canvas was arranged on the floor of the studio; the artist would then use tape to demarcate ‘rays’ of colour that divided and disrupted the neat geometry of the original quadrilateral. It was then that Noland cut the canvas into his desired shape, influenced only by a consideration of how the coloured stripes might be most potently brought together within a single plane. In many ways this method of deciding upon a composition is similar to the way we might crop a digital image today, but for Noland it was merely part of his desire to find a design that would best serve his chromatic experiments. As Aforethought demonstrates with the truncation of its right hand corner – stymying the suggested convergence of the mauve stripes with the yellow green and blue bands – this approach allowed Noland to create a compelling tension in his work. The shape of the canvas itself was always secondary to the way it could support the dynamic interplay of colours on its surface.
The critic Kenworth Moffat was quick to point out that, with these shaped canvasses Noland had found a ‘new way to suspend shape and therefore deal with issues of balance, illusion and colour; as a way to open up a new range of historically viable aesthetic choices’ (K. Moffat, Kenneth Noland, New York 1977, p. 82). It was this celebration of the illusory potential of colour and shape in space, and the rejection of shape as a purely object-orientated concern, that makes these works unique within the history of colour field painting