“Art is not ‘about.’ Art is,” the painter and critic Walter Darby Bannard often said. His shorthand dismissal of work that demands explication rather than yielding directly to sensory experience summed up an attitude shared by his friends and colleagues. Speaking of how one judges a painting, Bannard’s friend Larry Poons asserted that “It’s only your senses that can ever determine—it’s senses before words.” Works of art that require discussion of what they are “about” are most often essentially illustrations of carefully considered ideas and meanings more easily expressed verbally than visually. As Poons described this type of work:

There are things that look like paintings, but they’re not. They can be a kind of propaganda—posters, illustrations, this, that, and the other thing—which can be wonderful. But they’re not the same. They’re different from Cézanne or Pollock.

Rather than preconceiving an image, these painters responded to what emerged as they manipulated their materials.

In recent years, starting well before covid disrupted the art world’s usual rhythms, art that was “about” dominated what was deemed worthy of attention. No matter the medium, any work of art required a reference to politics, sociology, sexuality, climate change, and all the rest if it was to be taken seriously. For the most part, work answering these requirements was figurative, but what it was “about” didn’t have to be visible; it simply had to be announced. Witness Gerhard Richter’s (much-acclaimed) abstractions that, we are told, bury reproductions of photographs of the Holocaust under arbitrary layers of paint, or Julie Mehretu’s assertions of similarly concealed allusions to contemporary inequities. The work of the artists of Bannard’s circle, which included such contemporaries and near-contemporaries as Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler as well as Poons, was based on very different assumptions, starting with the conviction that whatever an artist did would be charged with all of its maker’s emotional and intellectual baggage, whether it was made explicit or not. Rather than preconceiving an image, these painters responded to what emerged as they manipulated their materials, remaining alert to possibilities, constantly making decisions about what to keep, what to change, and what to do next, and trusting in their intuition and experience. They avoided the visible “handwriting” of their ancestors among the gestural Abstract Expressionists, applying paint with unconventional methods and tools, yet they remained convinced that everything they did would be imbued with their individuality. They couldn’t escape themselves.

The painters of Bannard’s circle never disappeared completely from view—their importance to the history of art in the second half of the twentieth century was a given—but in the past decade or so, it has often been difficult to see their work in public collections, even though it was acquired by museums across the country; gallery exhibitions have been sporadic. That relative lack of attention made this spring’s confluence of ambitious exhibitions of Noland, Frankenthaler, and Poons in New York especially notable. Separately and together, “Kenneth Noland: Stripes, Plaids, Shapes” at Pace Gallery; “Drawing within Nature: Paintings from the 1990s,” a show of Frankenthaler’s late work at Gagosian; and “Larry Poons: The Outerlands” at Yares Art served as an encouraging reminder of the power of art that “is.”

More than half a century ago, all three artists were featured in the legendary survey “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970,” organized by Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exhibited in the company of Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, David Smith, Jackson Pollock, and Arshile Gorky among other luminaries from the previous generation, Noland (1924–2010), Frankenthaler (1928–2011), and Poons (born 1937) exemplified new, younger voices whose paintings directly challenged the work of their predecessors. Noland showed selections from his various series of the years under review: Circles, Diamonds, Chevrons, and Stripes. Frankenthaler showed free-flowing stain paintings from the 1950s and crisper works from the 1960s. Poons, the youngest artist in the show, was represented mainly by his Dot paintings—expanses of intense hues punctuated with small ovals of even more intense hues—and a few variations on the theme.

Originally, it was acrylic’s ability to be thin and fluid without losing intensity that attracted them.

While each of the three showed works from various years, the types of paintings included in the Met exhibition were largely those that had established and sustained their reputations. Such works are still highly esteemed, but it hardly needs saying that all three painters went on to explore many possibilities over the rest of their long careers. They probed, as well, the expanding capabilities of the acrylic paint they had all adopted fairly early. Originally, it was acrylic’s ability to be thin and fluid without losing intensity that attracted them. As new additives and mediums were developed, often in response to artists’ requests, the three took advantage of this enlarged vocabulary. Poons, the only one of the trio with us today, is still venturing into new territory, both aesthetically and materially, at eighty-five. The overlapping exhibitions at Pace, Gagosian, and Yares allowed us a glimpse of what has happened since 1970s and, at the same time, made clear what the three artists shared and what defined each of them as an unignorable original.

“Kenneth Noland: Stripes/Plaids/Shapes” began with canvases of horizontal bands—a type included in the Met exhibition—and followed the painter’s evolution for the next decade or so, before jumping to reprises of Stripe paintings made toward the end of his life, a rethinking of a known format spurred by the advent of new, more intense pigments.1 We watched Noland explore the implications of the Stripes, challenging horizontal strips of color with variously spaced verticals, now emphasizing the places where colors touch, now pushing incident to the edges, now contrasting gatherings of narrow bands with sparsely arranged lines, and more. We saw him rejecting the traditional rectangle, as if to present a dominant hue as a unique event, pressured by the unpredictable shape of the canvas and by colored bands at the edges. We saw into infinite depths and savored the fragile skin of color. Noland once told a younger painter that what mattered was not color but the vibration where colors met, an idea richly illustrated by the Stripe paintings at Pace. In them, somewhat atypically, the bands were not separated by raw canvas but touched; the contact intensified the hues. The phenomenon was even more visible in two Stripe paintings from 2003 whose saturated colors, both bright and subdued, announced their difference from a 1969 Stripe that greeted us at the entrance to the show. In his last years, Noland, always something of a techie, experimented with a new kind of pigment containing micronized aluminum for extra intensity, whatever the hue.

Kenneth Noland, Interface, 1973, Acrylic on canvas. © The Kenneth Noland Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Although the works clearly belonged to series, each was individual, with a different material palette, a different shape and proportion, a different temperature and mood. Zones of color could be faintly mottled or sleek, monochrome or delicately shifting. Bands could be applied or result from taping and reserving. One constant was Noland’s ability to invent and combine unnameable, resonant colors that separately and together triggered countless associations and emotions. Another was his insistence on the painting as an autonomous object, announced unequivocally by the declarative frontality of the Stripes and the Plaids, especially the luminous, pale, diamond-shaped Interface (1973), its symmetrical angles challenged by the four-square clustered lines of the “plaid” drawing. Autonomy seemed to be the motivating force for the non-rectangular paintings—mainly vertical, strenuously warped and elongated hexagons whose shapes, sizes, and assertive presence vaguely echoed standing figures. A notable exception was the cool, horizontal Occurant (1979), a compressed, warm-cream hexagon anchored by off-black lines at two edges. Despite its lack of exuberant chroma, it demanded and rewarded as much attention as the lushly colored paintings. Like all the works in “Kenneth Noland: Stripes/Plaids/Shapes,” Occurant seemed at once very much of its time and just as much of the present moment.

The title of “Drawing within Nature: Paintings from the 1990s” reflects what appears to be a desire on the part of the Frankenthaler Foundation to justify the artist’s spontaneous celebrations of the eloquence of color, expanse, and touch by connecting them with actuality.2 (There’s also a push to call Frankenthaler an Abstract Expressionist, even though part of her significance lies in her having shown her colleagues, including Noland, an alternative to the gestural Ab Ex that most of her generation was struggling to emulate. But that’s a matter for another discussion.) There’s no doubt that Frankenthaler was acutely attuned to her surroundings. The long horizontals and luminous expanses of the paintings made in her Shippan Point, Connecticut, studio plainly reflect her long familiarity with the changing light and atmosphere of Long Island Sound and the big divisions of water, earth, and sky; nevertheless, her paintings are not disguised landscapes. Rather, they are freewheeling improvisations, informed equally by her accumulated experience and her immediate responses to the manipulation of paint.

Helen Frankenthaler, Magnet, 1992, Acrylic on canvas, 106 x 81 3/4 inches, 269.2 x 207.6 cm. © Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever, Courtesy of Gagosian.

The paintings at Gagosian bore witness to Frankenthaler’s exploration of 1990s acrylic’s ability to be dense or translucent, to flow or create textures. In the wittily titled The Rake’s Progress (1991), she modulated broad areas of citrus yellow and green by combing the surface—hence “rake”—creating subtle, rhythmic drawing that sometimes revealed underlying layers. Elsewhere, patches of thick or rough pigment entered into a dialogue with patches of differently textured color. In others works, foaming whites veiled radiant color or shattered into punctuating droplets. Frankenthaler often spoke of her interest in non-chromatic colors—blacks (which she mixed herself), off-blacks, and haunting grays—and spoke, too, of her annoyance at being discussed only in terms of her use of color. (Full disclosure: in the late 1990s, I worked with her on a touring exhibition we called “The Darker Palette.”) The selection at Gagosian included the mysterious Spellbound (1991), a veiled expanse of black with a fraying pale-ocher sweep across the bottom that suggested nocturnal lighting, and the surprising Barometer (1992), a flurry of off-whites and silvery gray, as if the viewer were caught in a snowstorm. Seeing such austere paintings together with marvelously orchestrated works such as the glowing, deep-blue Sister Sky (1991) with its wonky drawing and emphatic orange cross—or is it an approving plus?—we grasped the full range of Frankenthaler’s remarkable gifts. We also saw how different she and Noland were. Unlike him, she never worked in series. There were family resemblances among groups of paintings and characteristic marks and gestures, but each work was a new response to the character of the medium and a host of stimuli, an open-ended approach that she clearly found fruitful. Noland, by contrast, was liberated by repeating a basic structure. Not having to think about composition in each new painting allowed him, he said, to concentrate on color relationships, edges, proportions, and all the other formal issues that he really cared about. That the Noland and Frankenthaler shows were a single block apart in Chelsea permitted some fascinating comparisons and underscored how intensely personal the work of each of these great colorists was.

“Larry Poons: The Outerlands,” reviewed at full length in this magazine’s April 2023 issue, opened with works made in 1981, when the artist began to apply an extraordinary variety of materials to the surface of the canvas to interrupt the flow of varied color.3 A decade earlier, he had become dissatisfied with the meticulous preparation of the Dot paintings that he showed at the Met, despite their acclaim, and had developed a remarkable method of throwing paint, orchestrating floods of incredibly complex color by varying the force and angle of the throw and layering hues. He coopted gravity to do the drawing for him and somehow, magically, ended up with expressive, coherent paintings. Collaging pieces of foam, crumpled paper, and sometimes indescribable things to the canvas slowed down the waterfall of paint and gave Poons another kind of drawing. The play of light on the richly articulated surfaces created further instability and chromatic variation, while some expanses became so aggressive that the paintings threatened to become relief sculptures, at the same time that they suggested rock faces or the walls of caves. His most recent paintings, executed with a brush, have all the chromatic complexity—or rather “complication,” Poons’s word—of the Throw paintings, with their rivulets of varied hues, and even more complexity of drawing: chains, loops, swirls, and squiggles, unspooling trails of color across the canvas. The gestures are now wristy, now full-arm, with the resulting tangles and sweeps of pigment retaining a subliminal sense of the body.

An installation view of “Larry Poons: The Outerlands” at Yares Art, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella Photography courtesty of Yares Art. Artworks by Larry Poons © 2023 Larry Poons. Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The proximity of the Noland and Frankenthaler shows in Chelsea reinforced our awareness of how different these painters were from each other, despite their frequently being discussed together, along with Poons, under the rubric “Color Field.” A trip uptown to Fifty-seventh Street to “The Outerlands” at Yares Art offered further evidence of the uniqueness of each of the three painters. The brash, exaggerated complexity of surface and color divisions in Poons’s work are completely antithetical to the implicit minimalism of Noland’s approach or to Frankenthaler’s near-Romantic floods and flows. Together and separately, these concurrent exhibitions reminded us of how strong the best of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century American abstraction can be and provided confirmation of the enduring freshness and unexpectedness of the work of all three artists. Time for some museum retrospectives?

  1.   “Kenneth Noland: Stripes/Plaids/Shapes” was on view at Pace Gallery, New York, from March 17 through April 29, 2023.
  2.   “Helen Frankenthaler: Drawing within Nature, Paintings from the 1990s” was on view at Gagosian, New York, from March 9 through April 15.
  3.   “Larry Poons: The Outerlands” was on view at Yares Art, New York, from February 25 through April 15, 2023

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 9, on page 44
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