KENNETH NOLAND was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1924. Interested in painting since age 14, he enrolled at Black Mountain College, just 15 minutes from his hometown, after his requisite service in the Air Force ended in 1946. Well-known at the time as a collective-based, experimental program directed by the former Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers, the school was ideal for Noland and his brothers, all beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill who shared an interest in art, literature, and jazz. His two years of studies with Ilya Bolotowsky sealed his dedication to color and abstraction.
Noland had his first solo exhibition at Galerie Raymond Creuze in Paris after moving there in 1948 to study for a year with sculptor Ossip Zadkine. He then joined family in Washington, D.C., and started teaching at the now defunct Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). In 1950 he revisited Black Mountain College to participate in its legendary summer courses, and this period is when critic Clement Greenberg introduced him to Abstract Expressionism. After the ICA dissolved in 1951, Noland taught at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., until 1960 and led night courses at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. During this time, he formed important friendships with Morris Louis, a fellow workshop teacher, and the established sculptor David Smith, whom he met through his first wife, Cornelia Langer, the mother of artist Cady Noland, one of Noland's four children.
During a trip to New York in 1953, Noland and Louis visited Helen Frankenthaler's studio with Greenberg. Both artists returned home inspired by her technique of applying thin washes of color to unprimed canvas. In 1957 Noland had his first American solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York. Two years later, at the French & Company Gallery, also in New York, he exhibited his concentric circle paintings on square canvases. By 1960, after fully adapting the color-staining method to their own styles, Noland and Louis were identified as leaders of the Washington Color School. Greenberg championed their practices as exemplary of "post-painterly abstraction." When Louis died in 1962, Noland left Washington, D.C., and lived at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, for one year before moving to a farm in South Shaftsbury, Vermont. This move brought him closer to Smith, as well as to the community of abstract artists at nearby Bennington College, including the painter Jules Olitski and sculptor Anthony Caro.
Known first for his circle paintings, Noland became a defining Color Field painter by rhythmically exploring a wide range of acrylic hues in a visual language of chevrons, diamonds, horizontal bands, and plaid patterns on variously shaped canvases, one as wide as 7.3 meters. In his later work, Noland returned to painting centered, concentric orbs, but on a smaller scale with thicker layers of color. He was included in the Venice Biennale (1964), and the Guggenheim Museum hosted his first retrospective (1977), which traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1977), and the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio (1978). In addition, his work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at a range of international institutions, including the Museo de arte moderno, Mexico City (1983); Museo de bella artes, Bilbao, Spain (1985); Museum of Fine Art, Houston (2004); Tate, Liverpool (2006); and Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio (1986 and 2007). His work has been shown in a number of major group exhibitions, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1965); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1969); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1971); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1979); and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1985). Noland taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (1985), and received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Davidson College, North Carolina (1997). In 2010, Noland died in Port Clyde, Maine, and was honored that year with a solo presentation of his work at the Guggenheim Museum, entitled Kenneth Noland, 1924–2010: A Tribute.