Today the art world begins to mourn the loss of Kenneth Noland, who died yesterday from Cancer at his home in Maine at the age of 85. As the art world mourns his death, DC can mourn the near omission from the memorial record. The New York Times does manage to note his settling here in the 1950s, and his teaching at Catholic University and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. It was also at this time he befriended Morris Louis. The article omits that Noland also taught night classes at the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts, where Louis was teaching. Most other publications omit his having lived in DC. Most of the DC information is a foot note upon a footnote. However, that does not mean his time in DC was inconsequential.
Tibor de Nagy is given credit for giving Noland his first solo show in 1957. Some keen writers note that it was his first solo New York show, which is more accurate. Noland had his first solo exhibition in the Watkins Gallery in December of 1950. For those unfamiliar with it, Watkins was a little bowling-alley closet of a gallery located in the Watkins (Fine Arts) building on the SW corner of American University's campus, before the gallery was rendered obsolete by The Katzen Arts Center in 2005. Today, not even the footprint of Watkins Gallery remains in tact, as the space has been restructured for classrooms and offices. I presume what Noland exhibited in 1950 was work from Black Mountain.
What I find fascinating about Noland is his work ethic. While he was teaching and painting in DC, he was also driving a cab to make ends meet. As some painters chase the ghost of Cezanne or Picasso, Noland chased the ghost of Paul Klee and emulated his style in the pursuit of abstract painting. (Image pictured left is a Noland c.1950-1953.) At one point he sold the little abstractions for $50 a piece in order to buy Christmas presents for his three kids.
The legend has it that Noland and Louis were swept away to New York by Clement Greenberg. They saw Frankenthaler's studio, abandoned what they were doing, and changed the course of painting history. Washington, DC remained as little more than a sleepy backwater footnote to the history of Noland's development. This is the fable handed down through the abbreviated histories. Such a fable is not far from the truth. What becomes more interesting are the relationships.
Noland met Greenberg as a student at Black Mountain. Some accounts suggest they remained close. I suspect Black Mountain operated somewhat like Chautauqua Institute, where, if not in residence, respected artists and critics might journey away from Manhattan for a couple weeks, or a month, to lecture, teach and critique. This kind of interaction does foster friendships, but I cannot imagine the two became really close until after Noland married Cornelia Langer. His wife had remained friends with her former professor from Sarah Lawrence, David Smith - who Clement Greenberg had been reviewing (for publications like The Nation) since 1937.
The trip to New York with Greenberg, Noland, and Louis did not occur until 1953. Shortly thereafter Noland abandoned his pursuit of Klee and worked in an all-over style, producing canvases that echoed Pollock, de Kooning, Frankenthaler, and Still. It would be almost another decade before Noland would leave DC.
By 1955 Noland started working with the circle, for which he has become well-known, and by 1956 he had established how useful a hoola-hoop was in the execution of his work - it helped true-up what were once very sloppy circles. When he had a solo show at The Jefferson Place Gallery in 1958, the other artists who exhibited with the gallery were stunned by the size of his paintings, some of which were as large as 8 feet square and needed to be unrolled and stretched in the gallery before they were hung. Some of the other regular artists even protested that his work was no longer art. I think some of them recognized that art, as they knew it, had officially changed. Eventually, the writer Tom Wolfe (former writer for the Washington Post between 1959 and 61) would refer to Noland as the world's fastest painter in the book The Painted Word, because of those circles.
DC enabled Noland an opportunity to find his direction. It is what DC does for artists. There is little pressure in this town because of its distance from New York. There is also the opportunity to accelerate into the lime-light, provided you have the right relationships, because of its proximity to New York.