Kenneth Noland - a few thoughts

I was shocked to be informed last week that Kenneth Noland had died. I wanted to write a few thoughts about his work as it has been important to me and I was lucky to have met him. He didn't get as much recognition as he should have done I felt reading his obituaries, with most writers seemingly lifting passages out of a book. He seems to be shackled in critical terms by the very work that liberated him , namely his circles and stripes from the sixties, but delve deeper and you see possibly the richest canon of abstract art  made thus far.
His most recent work shows how much you can get out of so little by paying such attention to the fundamentals of picture making, namely colour, surface and scale - add placement and touch to this and you have a set of parameters creating an amazingly protean situation in which to make art (I am still amazed that artists think there is some other 'content' out there besides). Like Matisse’s late works on canvas, they share that deft assurance that only comes from lifelong practice. They seem effortless.
Many of his detractors will sum his work up in historical terms - as I mentioned earlier, those circles and stripes from the sixties. Unfortunately in the UK work since then is seldom if ever seen in galleries, so he has not become part of the fabric in a way that say David Smith has become – yet Noland is a greater artist to my mind than Smith – both in ambition and in the sheer weight of significant works that he made. Also for a reason that is not often mentioned – ability. Noland had an ability to handle materials like few if any artists since the end of the Second World War. Technically his work is remarkable – surfaces expand out into oversized skins of colour yet maintain their lustre and sparkle – compare a Noland with a Kelly for example and you see just how consummate a craftsman he was – Kelly’s surfaces look bland (it doesn’t matter that they are seeking neutrality to draw attention to shape because shape is nothing without surface – this why Kelly’s work falls short (also as it is so pre-conceived it feels dull) – this should be a hotly contested, much discussed battleground, yet it  is never really mentioned as it would seem to not be considered important enough – Noland, to put it bluntly can create better surfaces than most; and the surface allows the colour to breathe, to carry more impact , more visual presence. His use of the pigments and paint is never dry or brittle or washed out or over-gelled – his works have nuance and visual clout in equal measure.
As the accessibility to second hand imagery is enjoying an exponential rise that has become  of late, a bi-product of  the driving force for communications technology, and is without foreseeable end  it would seem, artists that work ‘at the surface’ in this way will always suffer and be a prisoner to a “design mentality” – Noland is viewed through eyes accustomed to design not art- shapes and  stripes can be summed up as just that – he was an artist who worked with shapes and stripes, so this is how he is remembered by the many (not the knowing few).
I met him in 1990 at the Emma Lake Artists Workshop in Canada. I was fresh out of uni and had come to his work through an admiration of the work of Morris Louis (which I still have). It was a master class in looking – I hung on his every word and marvelled at his Cezanne like eye. He shaped two of my paintings and it was a revelation to see the tautness come into the works and he instructed me where to put the edges. I saw an amazing show of Flares (shaped canvases by him, shortly after in LA. The surface in these had all the qualities I now associate with him, and until I saw his work in the flesh in this way, were lost a little to me in reproduction. No matter how good you get, how celebrated an artist you become, if you are serious about colour, you must deal with Noland – measure yourself against his work, the techniques, the balance, the whole visual package. I for one,  will miss seeing the new work from now on.