Kenneth Noland, "Split." 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

How One Painting Absolutely Devastated Me

Kenneth Noland’s 1959 painting “Split” absolutely devastated me. When I saw it, it forever changed my life as an artist.

Nashville, Summer, 2001

In Summer, 2001, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (now called the Frist Art Museum) was new. My Granddaddy bought me an inaugural membership. One of the first exhibits was the Modernism and Abstraction exhibit, on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I saw so many incredible artworks by Georgia O’Keefe, Franz Klein, and more.

This exhibit made such a strong impression on me that I visited the show several times over the summer. I went so many times that if I had bought tickets, I would have paid more than the annual membership.

One painting stopped me dead in my tracks.

It was “Split” by Kenneth Noland.

Kenneth Noland, "Split." 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

Kenneth Noland, “Split.” 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

It is almost eight feet square. It has a purple, black, white, and red arrangement of a series of concentric circles, one square, and the outer circle has an irregular outer edge, on raw canvas. It was painted with acrylic, which was brand new at the time. See, oil paint, if applied directly to canvas, will slowly eat away at the fibers in a slow burn and destroy it. So it has to be protected with gesso before it gets painted. Acrylic paint doesn’t destroy raw canvas the way oil paint does. So Noland painted directly onto the canvas.

There was such immediacy, yet restraint, that it just knocked me over. It changed me.

I stood and stared at it for a long time.

What did it mean?

Why did it make me so uneasy?

Why does my eye keep going around it faster and faster?

I knew if a painting made me feel all these things, it had some sort of power behind it.

I think there’s something about the tangent where the right corner of the square/diamond shape almost touches the circle that encloses it. The colors almost harmonize, but there is just enough discord that it makes me uneasy. And of course, the circle is a powerful, profound symbol that touches something deep in our primal consciousness, a symbol of life, eternity, earth, the universe, time. The outer red edge is uneven and sloppy, like the circle is falling apart. The apparent order of the composition is at risk of imploding. The universe, for all its apparent order, is disintegrating.

That’s the power of (abstract) art. Something so deceptively simple can lead you to an existential crisis.

I went back and looked at the whole exhibit about five times over that summer.

That exhibit, and this painting in particular, showed me that abstraction was something worth paying attention to.

Since then, I have wanted to paint big all the time, with huge, powerful movements, on large canvases. And of course, my work has grown increasingly abstract over the years, yet still grounded in reality. I love painting big, and actually prefer it over the tiny canvases I have painted the past few years.

What’s an artwork that has had a profound effect on you?

What was your reaction to it? Sound off in the comments or drop me a note.