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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



A highly interesting and very stimulating exhibition is “Kenneth Noland: Paintings, 1958-1968” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Chelsea (through April 30). The emphasis on these ten paintings is on variety, rather than unity. A Noland show in the ‘50s or ‘60s might have focused more immediately on just one aspect of the artist’s output —all “targets” or circles, say, all “chevrons,” all “diamonds” or all “stripes.” In addition, each show would have featured very similar targets, chevrons, diamonds or stripes. (At least, this is my recollection of the two Noland shows I saw in the ‘60s, one at André Emmerich in ’67 and one at Lawrence Rubin in ’69—both I remember as all stripe paintings, the first with similar brilliant colors and the second with similar paler ones).The present show, by contrast, includes one chevron, two diamonds (one with a circle motif at its center), and ten circles, only one of which constitutes the classic or best-known composition, with clearly defined, hard-edged concentric circles.

The other six are all variations on this theme, one with narrow wavy lines in a target formation, one with short tabs of horizontal and vertical bands of color taping down the outermost of the concentric circles, one with the spokes of a wagon wheel in the middle, one with two little sets of concentric circles, and so on. Everything in this show is from the artist’s estate, so these are all works that remained unsold at the time of his death, but whether they are works that he deliberately held back because he was especially fond of them, or whether they remained unsold because they had never been exhibited, or whether they remained unsold because buyers preferred the better-known variations on the theme, are unanswered questions. It is a handsome show, with not quite the mind-numbing beauty that characterized so many of Noland’s earlier, more homogenous exhibitions, but with an intellectual appeal that may be what its organizers deemed more appropriate for the current market.

Certainly, the catalogue essay, by art historian Paul Hayes Tucker, is just the kind of article that should appeal to postmodernists. Although it includes much valuable information about the artist’s life and early artistic influences, as well as extended bibliographical references, it also lurches between psychobabble and the kind of sociopolitical “history” that neo-Marxists have injected into what might otherwise be intelligent esthetic discussions. I am so, so tired of reading about the “anxiety” of the Cold War era, and those poor pathetic schoolchildren who had to hide in fall-out shelters. Hey, I was alive & well in the ‘50s, and we didn’t worry about the Nuclear Holocaust, not even in New York. All this is post-Vietnam Weltschmerz, projected back into an era when most Americans felt more secure. Equally irritatingly pomonian are Tucker’s attempts to integrate Noland’s imagery into mass-audience culture, with reproductions of 6 commercial & military designs, including the circular logo on a pack of Lucky Strikes and the chevron-shaped Standard Oil company logo. One has only to look at the mechanically-colored vulgarity of these reproductions and compare them with Noland’s paintings to see how superior the paintings could be. As coiner of the term, “multireferential imagery,” I’m perfectly willing to concede that Noland’s imagery may have derived in part from commercial designs, but the subtlety of his colors and the elegance of his forms also suggest a host of other, far lovelier & more natural sources --- ranging from the sun and the moon to the ineffable quality of speed---which receive far less attention in Tucker’s essay.

In any event, there are some truly beautiful paintings in the show at Mitchell-Innes. The standout is “Morning Span” (1964), a large chevron painting with just three colors, opening out from the center: yellow, on the inside, then orange, then red---breathtaking in its simplicity and magnificence. Also very fine is “Earthen Bound” (1960), a large and relatively classic target, employing offbeat shades of the three primaries, with the central orb a huge rusty red—this painting is a little on the heavy side, but its purity makes one forgive it a lot. “Epigram” (1961) is a witty painting, with a small black circle in the center, and a red semi-circle half-surrounding it near the periphery. But Noland shortchanged himself with the title of the lively “Orange and Blue” (ca. 1966), a diamond with diagonal stripes on it. It should be blues alternating with oranges, but although the blues are all the same color, the oranges range from an orangey-yellow to an orange to a orangey-red.

I was so sorry not to be able to review "Peter Reginato's 'Polychrome'" exhibition at Heidi Cho. I stopped by at the opening, but I can never focus on the art at openings--too many people around. Alas, when I went back for a more leisurely visit, I found the gallery all closed up, with signs saying that the landlord was in possession of the property. Apparently, Ms. Cho hadn't been paying her rent. I understand, however, that Reginato was able to extract his work from the premises, so the landlord didn't attach that.

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