On view until Feb. 27, the show consists of 15 paintings that were undertaken during Noland's time in Santa Barbara, California, in the early 1990s. They may have been inspired by the landscape, the ocean, the weather, perhaps even by the surfers who frequent this part of the California coast. What is obvious is that the artist continued working in his signature manner: large, shaped canvases coated with acrylic paint but here, instead of being limited to targets, chevrons, stripes or diagonal bands, Noland has embraced broad, gestural strokes of color in a wildly expressive manner.
Of course, color was Noland's stock in trade. The now-legendary story is that, in 1953, Noland and his friend and fellow artist Morris Louis visited the studio of Helen Frankenthaler where they were first introduced to the idea of paint applied, via pouring, to unprimed canvases. The result was a sort of staining effect that stressed the interaction of colors. Years before, Noland, who was born in 1924 in Asheville, North Carolina, had attended the experimental Black Mountain College and studied under Josef Albers. His nested color squares would influence the way Noland placed his images within the square of the frame, but it was the reaction against the prevailing Abstract Expressionist movement that would really guide his trajectory. No longer interested in angst-filled canvases, a la Jackson Pollock, Noland and fellow Color Field painters were still working abstractly but, as Noland said in 1969, "I wanted to have color be the origin of the painting."
Upon entering the Pace Gallery exhibition, a first impression might be that these "Flare" series works could be perceived as sculptures rather than paintings. They are definitely constructed, with canvas adhered to shaped panels and then painted with acrylic. Some are aligned vertically, others horizontally and some seem to fit together like tangram puzzle pieces. They stack, they fly, they join together in visually pleasing ways. And, in spite of their age, they look like they could have come out of a contemporary studio.
"I feel like the show looks very fresh, as though the works could have been done yesterday," Pace Director Elizabeth Sullivan said. "They really reflect the notion that less is more, and I like the way they relate to each other. There is a certain musicality to them."
The gallery's center wall is home to "Rise and Fall," a gorgeously scarlet painting that consists of three separate pieces. The irregularly shaped canvases, which Noland referred to as "constructed pictures," reminded me of the sea, a wave and the distant horizon. Additional depth to the piece is provided by an interesting visual trick: Nolan has placed a strip of colored plexiglass to the sides of the shapes. Here, turquoise blue and golden yellow add contrast and volume.
This placement of the narrow strip of plexiglass is used in each piece with great effect. Whether it is red adjacent to black or canary yellow next to red, there is not a single misstep; they complement each other and enhance the whole.
All of the pieces are given suggestive titles by the artist. "A Secret," "Hot Times" and "La Luna" are all sturdy, stacked horizontal elements that could call to mind books on shelves. "Wind Driven" is an appropriate title for three long, narrow bands that look as though they are collapsing against one another. Similarly, "Midnight Madness" consists of one vertical swath painted a deep black that abuts a cerulean blue shape, then one painted a brick red.
Whether you find reference points when looking at these paintings is not important. What you will take away from the experience is the simple joy of color — bold, bright, riotous colors that may look like they have been joined by happenstance but, make no mistake, were carefully planned and executed by Noland. These works are color studies in action — the color wheel and all of its theoretical properties in solid form. Warm colors advance, cool colors recede and their interaction creates. These are the strong, assured works of a mature artist (Noland died in 2010) who was not afraid to explore the rich visual language of color.
This is the first presentation of Noland's work at Pace Palo Alto (you can see an example of his better-known target series, "Rose," at the Anderson Collection at Stanford University) but hopefully not the last. We need all the color we can get in our lives these days.
Pace Gallery is open by appointment only (229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto) and with COVID-19 protocols in place. More information is available at pacegallery.com.
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