Kenneth Noland (1924-2010)
Kenneth Noland (1924-2010)

Straight Flush

Kenneth Noland (1924-2010)
Straight Flush
acrylic on canvas
69 ½ x 105 ½ in. (176.5 x 268 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Private collection, acquired directly from the artist
Private collection, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1978
K. Moffett, Kenneth Noland, New York, 1977, pp. 8 and 104 (illustrated).


Straight Flush’s essential structure lies in the powerfully symmetrical composition, defining a grid across the expanse of a large canvas that measures almost six feet by nine feet. It is clear that Kenneth Noland, among the most influential of postwar abstract artists and one of the central figures of Color Field painting, was fascinated by the Modernist paradigm of the grid and of how colors can be made to work within its structure. In works such as this, Noland defined new pathways in abstract art with his unprimed canvases, geometric forms, and thin washes of pure, saturated color. In their spareness, in the way that they sought to strip painting down to basic principals, Noland’s works articulated a powerful departure from Abstract Expressionism, and were often thought of as Minimalist painting, although his work defined a style of its own.

This 1961 painting is a wonderful example of the self-imposed aesthetic challenge Noland set, the challenge of how to use color as a subject in itself, not simply as an adjunct to design. Clement Greenberg, the great proponent and critic of postwar painting said of Noland’s conception of color that, “[h]is 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, quoted in W. Grimes, “Kenneth Noland, Abstract Painter of Brilliantly Colored Shapes, Dies at 85,” The New York Times, January 6, 2010).

In Straight Flush the colors themselves are as significant as are the lines and shapes in establishing the success of the painting. Noland sought ways of finding a balance between structure and color, and the pleasures of viewing the present work are to be found through appreciating how Noland achieved that balance. Curator Diane Waldman proclaims, “Noland ranks with Delacroix and the Impressionists among the great color painters of the modern era. Unquestionably heir to Matisse and Klee in the realm of color expression…Noland’s search for the ideal Platonic form has crystalized into an art in which color and form are held in perfect equilibrium. The spare geometry of his form heightens the emotional impact of his color” (D. Waldman, Kenneth Noland: A Retrospective, New York, 1977, p. 36).

Responding to the type of painting that was the dominant style in the 1950s when he started as an artist, Abstract Expressionism, Noland sought a way of working that would allow him to express his own personal approach, but he did so by pursuing his goal through different methods than the reigning mode of painting of the time. Noland recalled, “I think we realized that you didn't have to assert yourself as a personality in order to be personally expressive. We felt that we could deal solely with esthetic issues, with the meaning of abstraction, without sacrificing individuality—or quality” (D. Waldman, "Color, Format and Abstract Art: An Interview with Kenneth Noland by Diane Waldman," Art in America, vol. 65, no. 3). The remark helps to explain why he was often thought of as a Minimalist painter, and it helps to explain how a spare, geometric work such as Straight Flush can be both minimal in form and yet at the same time so expressive.

Indeed, the colors of Straight Flush are so buoyant that the entire canvas exudes a positive atmosphere of uplift. Noland strongly believed that color can project human feeling and mood, and he thought of color’s ability to evoke emotion as the essence of abstract art. Beyond color, though, the structure of the present painting delights, too, through its grid arrangement, which defines negative spaces that are by no means empty, but rather just as full as the positive space of the grid lines themselves.

Noland broke with Abstract Expressionist ways of painting, but he picked-up on the revolutionary ideas that the painters working in that style pushed forward: finding new ways to put paint on canvas, to use materials, to make pictures. “We were making abstract art, but we wanted to simplify the selection of materials, and to use them in a very economical way. To get to raw canvas, to use the canvas unstretched—to use it in more basic or fundamental ways, to use it as fabric rather than as a stretched surface” (Ibid.).

During his long and extraordinary career, Noland was included in several key survey exhibitions during the 1960s that helped define American art of that era. These included the Venice XXXII Biennale; Documenta 4; Post-Painterly Abstraction, curated by Clement Greenberg on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964; The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1965; and New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940-1970 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1969. He was honored with a career retrospective in 1977 by the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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