Wood |  Karen Wilkin

William Noland is young as abstract sculptors go. (That’s a fact, not a value judgment). He’s an adventurous artist, always willing to test the possibilities of his chosen discipline and always willing to explore new materials. It should go without saying that Noland doesn’t seek out the newfangled for the sake of novelty. His reasons for using, during the past five or six years, steel, bronze, clay, aluminum and wood have ranged from sheer curiosity to pure pragmatism. The overwhelming impulse has been to make better sculpture. He has made good work in metal and in clay, but when he began to work in wood a few years ago, he appeared to find the medium that, so far, has challenged him the most. Wood has provoked what seems to me to be Noland’s best sculpture to date.

To say Noland works in wood is slightly misleading. It would be closer to the mark to say that he works in carpenter’s lumber or in recycled wooden objects. His stock has included massive wooden molds for casting, off the rack lumber, dismembered furniture and a set of exquisitely crafted oak revolving doors. I mention this not for anecdotal interest—the elements lose their old identities completely when they are subsumed by a Noland sculpture—but for what it reveals about Noland’s attitude toward sculpture making. No one would be surprised to learn that a sculptor in steel used off-the-rack industrial members or found objects. The “new tradition” of constructed metal sculpture that begins with Picasso and Gonzalez, in France, and with David Smith, in the U.S., takes as its starting point non-art material that has already been processed, converted from a raw state to a manufactured one: it is a material with a vernacular history (not art history), transubstantiated by the artist, both physically, by being manipulated and altered, and metaphorically, by being made part of a new, independent object.

Noland uses wood the way, say, David Smith, used steel. He rejects woodcarving as too freighted with art historical connotations and presents us, instead, with a substance that has been milled, carpentered and worked, extending the purview of large scale sculpture made by constructing—adding on—to include a material associated with cutting away. Yet there is no sense of translation from one material to another. Noland’s recent sculptures are clearly about the properties of wood, although it’s equally apparent that, for him, the “woodiness” of the material resides not in its evocations of growth and decay—the romantic overtones of an organic material—but in its structural capabilities.

Wood is less forgiving than steel. It demands to be joined in particular ways; it can’t simply be tack welded at will. There are excellent reasons why wooden furniture and buildings are put together the way they are. More specifically, wood is noticeably less responsive than the material Noland was using immediately prior to (and even during) his change of medium: he had been making extremely inventive sculptures in aluminum. Unlike aluminum, wood resists bending. Curves are not easily introduced. The resistance is precisely what Noland likes about it. His aluminum sculptures, good as they were, depended upon a kind of lyrical drawing and there was always a risk of overloading and over-complication. When he works with wood, Noland is forced to be more severe, to be even clearer than he was in the best of the aluminum sculptures, and his new works benefit.

Noland likes, too, the warmth of wood’s surface. It is relatively soft, visually, in contrast to its unyielding, firm structural character. (Aluminum, on the other hand, is visually cool and hard, even though it is structurally more tractable). And he likes, as well, the way wood takes color. Noland has been experimenting with polychromy for years, but he has often been displeased by the way color remains a “skin” on metal. Wood’s absorbent qualities allow him to make color a more integral part of his hew sculptures, while at the same time, the variations in absorbency between different types and finishes of wood allow him to emphasize the additive character of his pieces. He uses color primarily to emphasize unity, however. Noland colors his sculptures only when he feels the existing range of textures and colors is so great that there is risk of compromising the sculpture’s existence as a single, self-contained object.

Most important, perhaps wood forces Noland to use a greater variety of thickness and thinness, a more expanded lexicon of forms than any of his previous materials. The delicacy of available stock was part of what led to the freewheeling drawing typical of the aluminum pieces, but in other ways, it was limiting. With wood, Noland can play sturdy members against fragile ones, chunky forms against linear ones, and even box-in sections to make robust volumes.

If Noland has made virtues out of the inherent properties of his material, he has nonetheless remained faithful to ideas that have preoccupied him for some time, no matter what medium he used. The wood pieces are intimately related to the works that preceded them. They develop, perhaps even more clearly, themes first stated in aluminum, notably in a series of sculptures that seemed poised between wall and floor, like athletes ready to push off into some curious sporting event. They were among Noland’s best sculptures of the time and he still finds their ideas provocative. Several new wooden pieces lean against the wall or, at least, refuse to limit themselves to a single plane of reference. Others are free-standing, but restate the triangulated relationships first proposed by the aluminum “leaners”: like them, they are essentially two-part structures with significant connections. Still others, usually smaller, are like enlarged sections of the “leaners” or their near-relatives.

The wood sculptures are no less abstract than their predecessors, nor are they less animate, yet this animation, combined with their woodiness, allies them with the highly charged figures of African art, despite the differences in their construction. Brancusi’s stacked wooden bases and African-inspired wood sculptures made of multiple parts also come to mind. At the same time, though, Noland’s wood “leaners” often seem to have architectural connotations, probably because of his insistence on the vocabulary of joinery; the combined effect of their essentially geometric forms, their four-square construction and their boxiness is to evoke doorways and windows, without in any way looking like doorways or windows. Noland’s sculptures are not disguised entryways or furniture, but at their best, they force us to think about our notions of entry or of the objects around us.

Every part of these sculptures counts: the doubling and thickening of a member, the gouging out of a thick section, the spacing of a row of dowels. Elements as diverse as a built-up arch and a narrow slot between strips can be equally important, but we slowly discover these nuances. Only after we have been struck by the single object that looks like nothing but itself do we begin to pay attention to details of cutting and joining, to changes in density and level.

William Noland’s sculptures are ambitious in the best sense of the word; so is their maker. His is a young artist to watch attentively.


Karen Wilkin © 1986