Kenneth Noland, a native of Asheville, North Carolina, was one of the few “local boys” to study at the progressive Black Mountain College, attending from 1946 to 1948, and again in 1950. Thoroughly steeped in the abstract idiom, Noland emerged as an articulate Color Field painter who relied on a geometric foundation. Through his teachers Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers, he learned the importance of geometrical relationships and color theory. Under Bolotowsky, with whom he had a great personal affinity, he was forced to reckon with Neoplasticism and the heritage of Piet Mondrian; from Albers, Noland acquired problem-solving skills and a talent for working in series.
Noland had served in the United States Air Force during World War II and used the GI Bill to underwrite a sojourn in Paris where he studied with Ossip Zadkine, a Russian-born artist best known for his cubistic sculptures. Upon his return, Noland settled in Washington, D.C., and became good friends with Morris Louis, whose technical facility with acrylic paint influenced him. Of the two, Noland was the more gregarious, enjoying annual visits to New York and regular contact with the mainstream. After a pivotal visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953, Noland and Louis had an intense period of collaboration, one that has been equated to a jam session of jazz musicians. Together they experimented with the new acrylic paints, particularly in regard to staining. Whereas Louis consistently retained the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism in his staining and soaking of raw canvas, Noland focused upon flat geometric shapes and pure colors—choices reflective of his lessons at Black Mountain.
Noland's approach is wholly formalist, and he began to work on a large scale in the early 1960s, experimenting with various formats, including diamonds, tondos, lozenges, and chevrons. His interest in unorthodox shapes may have derived from his teacher Bolotowsky. Typically, Noland painted with his canvas on the floor, and during the creative process he would climb a ladder, gaining an aerial view that mirrors his experience as an Air Force pilot.
North Carolina recognized its native son on a number of occasions; in 1995 he was given the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts, and two years later Davidson College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts. More recently, in 2004, the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Texas, organized a major exhibition of his work, followed by an installation of his striped paintings at the Tate Museum in London. Noland’s work is represented in the collections of prestigious international and national museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He died of kidney cancer at his home in Port Clyde, Maine, in early 2010.