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Ken Noland

By Paul Theroux

Ken Noland was unmistakably a Southerner—that engaging farm-boy smile, that querying drawl, that informal manner. But his work is formal, timeless, and impossible to nail down or locate geographically, not even the places where they were painted, which is probably why his work glows from walls all over the world. Ken’s confidence and even his smile is obvious in his paintings, which to me are images of joy; and his imagination is evident in the poetically precise titles he gave to his separate works and series, among them, “Turnsole,” “Bend Sinister,” “Grave Light,” “Dawn’s Road,” and others equally evocative.

One of the privileges of knowing a painter is that you get to see a dozen or more canvases together, hanging his or her studio walls, making sense. Ken’s large retrospectives at many museums (among them the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, a few years ago) were an example of this, always dazzling for their completeness, not simply the coherence and complexity of his color schemes but most of all their vitality. Ken’s paintings are a celebration of life without representing a single human figure, reminding us that color is life. (Swimming fish have subtle color; some of them have Noland stripes; but dead on the slab most fish are gray.) A mere glance at a Noland painting is proof he was a happy man, confident of his achievement as an innovator, sharing his vision with you.

In the last year of his life when I saw him in Maine, which was often, I’d ask him how he was doing, and he always said, “I’m alive!” and usually after that, “Come down to the studio—let’s hang out.”

He was passionate about his work, but hanging out was what he did when he wasn’t painting. He was, like many creative people I’ve known, two distinct individuals. In his studio, painting, Ken was fastidious, self-critical, orderly, and intense, fascinated by the luminous power generated by the combinations, the patterns and physicality of color. I think of Whistler’s indifference to giving information in a painting, seeing his ideal as something that “should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of the eye.” There is something sacred in his work, shamanic in the patterns; something to stare at and be dazzled by. You expect such a painter to be a priestly and intimidating. He was anything but.

One of the greatest satisfactions of my life was having Ken Noland as a friend. That he was an artist was a bonus beyond measure, because through their work, whatever it is, the creative person allows access to his or her intimate thought. The work is an indicator of mood; it always tells you what’s on their mind. And a friend is someone to whom you are free to say any damn thing that comes into your head. That freedom epitomized my friendship with Ken. We had the same birthday, April 10th, and that gave us an affinity. He was one of the kindest, most generous men I’ve ever known, with the sociability that many artists have, the worldliness a result perhaps of the nature of the art world—the painter often interacting with his or her collectors. The writer seldom meets the reader.

In all his material success and artistic achievement, Ken remained himself—youthful in outlook, interested in everything. He loved jazz and listened to it constantly when he was working—the classics: Coltrane, Miles Davis, Steve Lacy, Gerry Mulligan. Whenever I drove him from Maine to Boston he always brought a bag of CDs. “Put this on. Thelonious Monk. He’s cool.”

In his vigorous years he piloted his boat out of Port Clyde, Maine, where one of his close friends was Andy Wyeth. The two men shared a mutual respect, for each one knew the other was a master in his own way. I loved seeing them sitting together over lunch at a little clam shack at the pier, anonymous, usually laughing, two of the world’s greatest living artists, bathed in the marine sunlight from the window.

Ken loved fishing, and he out-fished everyone I knew. Far from priestly, he was relaxed, fun-loving, and easy going—and curious, a great watcher of people, a noticer; he often remarked on people’s postures, their crochets, their turns of speech. “See how he’s kind of dancing around the painting, then leaning back?” he’d whisper. This power of observation made him great company, and I smiled to think it was from a man who never painted a human figure. He didn’t sketch, but instead meditated on form and the possibilities of color, sometimes returning decades later to refine certain works, as he did for example in 2006 with the multi-sided paintings he had created in the 1970s, taking them from storage and reworking them until they seemed to burst from the wall in a sculptural way.

He prided himself in not being urbane, claiming to be a hick, “I’m a Southerner, from Asheville—hey, I sold newspapers when I was a kid.” He had clear memories of Asheville, and family connections to the celebrated there (Thomas Wolfe and Zelda Fitzgerald), as well as a personal narrative of race relations, which he could relate in great detail. He would describe the way the local movie house was divided by race; the main street and shopping districts with their version of Dixie apartheid. He was raised in another age, and he had clear memories of its injustices. His boyhood paper route took him through the black part of town, where in jazz he found a common language and common ground. It was a helpful coincidence that Black Mountain College happened to be near Asheville: after his military service, he was set on course by the free spirits who encouraged him at Black Mountain and later in Paris.

Seeing himself as a country boy, he did his best work where he was happiest, in Vermont and Maine. Though he worked for periods in Washington and New York, and was patronized by power brokers and celebrity critics, he was not a metropolitan. He much preferred the space and elbow room of the countryside, as well as its informality, and his move to the Maine coast energized him, for the clear air and the light, and peacefulness. He loved being on the sea, and now and then we rowed in my boat in Wheeler Bay. He spoke of his liking for “that edge between water and land,” a natural margin that seems to occur in some of his paintings.

In his last years he grew increasingly hard of hearing, and he lost much of his sight. He still worked—his last paintings are ghostly. And as for his hearing loss:

“Let’s go get the women,” I’d say.

“You want to go swimmin’?” he’d reply.

He loved the paintings of Matisse. He loved fishing. He loved Maine. He loved painting. He loved his wife and was loved in return.

Read by Jamaica Kincaid.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters