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Kenneth Noland: A guide to reading modern art

Kenneth Noland
acrylic on canvas
CANTABILE Kenneth Noland 1961 acrylic on canvas
Walker Art Center

Have you ever been to an art museum and felt completely lost, wondering how a specific piece of art or artist was chosen to be an example of mastery? Modern art seems to be a particularly confusing movement. To the general public modern artists are interpreted as being untalented because the simplicity of their art, which is often referred to as childlike. One reason for this assumption is that a large number of art spectators have been conditioned to believe that representational objects are attractive, then associating attractive art with good art.

Modern art is a break from the representational tradition and instead invites the spectator to be intellectually challenged. Meaning, instead of relying on pictorial organization to literally paint a story for the viewer, modern art uses simplicity in color and form to create an interaction between the viewer and the art.

Kenneth Noland, aware of these formal confines, challenges this limitation by creating an experience for the viewer through the use of large canvases, in relation to the human body, and contrasting colors to create tension and ambiguity.

Noland's Cantabile, which can be seen at the Walker Art Center in the Benches and Binoculars exhibit, is a 66.5" x 65.125" painting characterized by a progression of different colored concentric circles, in the form of a target. The huge canvas forces the viewer to keep their distance allowing a visual activation to take place. The contrasting colors stimulate an expansion and contraction rhythm due to the viewer's iris' changing shape dilating, constricting, and pulsing.

While this pulsation plays an integral role in the expression of this painting, the uncolored raw canvas is important to the role of the paintings identity. By framing these circles with a raw canvas it allows for the painting to move out beyond the constraints of the surface into a limitless space. Representational art is bound by the edges that frame it limiting the illustrations to a rectangular space, making the art purely decoration, whereas Noland delimits this boundary through visual illusions. Through this successful optical resonance, Noland overcomes tradition pure and simple.


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