Conversations with the Built World

Karen Wilkin

William Noland is a photographer as well as a sculptor.  This is, I admit, an odd way to begin a discussion of some of his most ambitious (and achieved) abstract constructions to date, but I believe that the same attention to the world around him that generates Noland's best photographs--recently of wholly absorbed, intensely focused people oblivious to his presence--informs his probings into the possibilities of three dimensions.  To put it another way, the sensitivity to the actual that provokes Noland's photographs is manifest in the literal, material expressiveness and the rich visual metaphors of his sculpture.

For a decade, after having explored "traditional" modernist sculptor's materials, such as steel, aluminum, and even bronze, Noland has worked mainly in wood, or more properly, in lumber cannibalized from sources ranging from derelict furniture to abandoned buildings.  Initially he seemed most interested in the structural possibilities wood permitted or imposed on him, a vocabulary of joinery and carpentry, freighted with the previous history of his chosen materials.  There was nothing sentimental about Noland's acceptance of these associations; he simply exploited a language of angles, butts, dovetails, boxes, and the like, detaching it from its traditional functions and putting it into the service of new, non-functional but compelling objects.  Often, despite their implicit references to building and joining, Noland's sculptures of the mid-80's seemed as animate and confrontational as figures.  Scaled like human bodies, without overtly resembling them, these sculptures recalled human gestures; most impressive, perhaps, was a series that leaned precariously against the wall, as though springing energetically away from the support.

Most recently, Noland's works have evoked place more than person.  It's not simply that his sculptures have gotten bigger, so that their scale is no longer that of a single figure--although this contributes--but that they define space, instead of merely claiming or displacing it, delineating highly charged locations that at once remind us of our everyday surroundings and evoke special, perhaps even sacred precincts.  It's significant that Noland adds steel and other materials to his wooden elements, reinforcing the building metaphor and widening his range of textures and colors.  At first sight, these complex structures seem improvised, cobbled together; layerings, gatherings of narrow strips into substantial bars or of slender planes into dense masses seem expedient responses to available materials.  Fragmented "walls," schematic "windows," collapsed "railings," and blocked "entrances," make these constructions seem vernacular and domestic, like disintegrating farmhouse rooms or rural outbuildings.  Longer acquaintance makes them seem, paradoxically, too elegant for such modest associations.  Repetitions and doublings read not as ad hoc solutions, but as deliberate emphasis, like accented lines in a drawing.  Subtleties of scale further divorce these constructions from the literal, so that we begin to think in terms of abstraction rather than reality, of metaphor rather than of actuality: "windowness" takes the place of "the window," "the possibility of passage" takes the place of "the entrance," and so on.

Noland is fascinated by Japanese religious architecture, with its extraordinary tradition of wooden joinery, of building, dismantling, and rebuilding, and it is not altogether hyberbolic to say that his recent sculptures can be read as modern day, Western, secular shrines--among other things.  Noland's ramshackle, sketchy "places," with their delicately adjusted internal relationships and elusive references, evoke both the ruins of more solid structures and schematic, temporary constructions--like stage-sets, without, however, being theatrical.  I keep thinking simultaneously of sagging porches that have lost some of their railings and the raised "boxing rings" where Japanese court dances are performed, even though the shifts in scale in Noland's pieces immediately remove them from any possibility of utility.  But these charged, deeply felt sculptures will resonate differently for each of us.  What is constant, whatever the associations they call up, is a sense of imminence, of the likelihood of something's taking place that is out of our ordinary experience.  Like the rapt individuals fixated on their private concerns in Noland's recent photographs, his recent large-scale sculptures are at once familiar, strange and utterly convincing.

©1995

Valentin Tatransky

Here’s what I like about William Noland’s current work: I like the way he lays bare the creative process. You’ve never been here in western New York when the Town of Amherst lays down a sidewalk. I like that moment when the concrete is still wet. They have to put wood against the concrete to keep the concrete in place, and to reinforce those boards they use steel. William Noland’s work has this same wonderful informal quality to it, as if the artist was in the middle of making something and then couldn’t quite make up his mind.

It’s not just the ambiguities in his art that I admire. I admire his drawing and his sense of proportion. Notice how unashamed he is of the rectangle. Look at that wooden box he put right in the middle of that rectilinear frame. Notice the angle. Notice how the steel reinforces the wood.

As a sculptor, Noland is not an apologist; he is the genuine article. He does understand three-dimensional unity. I’m not saying that I liked everything I saw in his studio. Sometimes the frames of his sculptures are too heavy. What one cherishes in his art is the lightness of his touch—nonetheless, when he gets bottom heavy, the result is magic.

©2008

Kate Dobbs Ariail

Noland’s abstract sculpture is rigorous, to say the least, even daunting in its exquisite formalism. Working with the materials of architecture, he devises arrangements that—like buildings—demand to be looked at from numerous vantage points. Yet at the same time, they deal with the formal concerns of abstract painting and representational photography. Abstract and cerebral though they are, Noland’s sculptures reveal a passionate devotion to the mysteries of relationships: up to down, back to forward, textured to smooth, rhythm to stillness, mark to absence of mark.

Noland’s passion is conveyed through the concentrated attention required to place his materials in precise alignments that maximize their expressivity. It’s an aesthetic passion, one that values purity and refinement over quick expression or emotional release. Noland draws our attention away from himself and his artistic process, keeping us focused on the work itself in a way that’s not particularly fashionable.

The paradox is that, for all his reticence, Noland is more truly revealing than the self-centered “tell-all” artists who have no topic but themselves. Take “Southern States”. Five years in the making, this is clearly the product of an artist who’s willing to work and rework to find the most harmonious interplay between his elements. Noland abstracts from architecture in order to deal with ideas about home, about self-image, about one’s place in the world.

© 1995

Linda Johnson Dougherty

William Noland creates sculptures that are like abstract, architectural installations or three-dimensional drawings in space. He does not make discrete objects, but rather compositions of disparate forms and materials that take shape in very open, linear, schematic works. Noland plays off the industrial quality of rough wood as an art material and also incorporates found objects, such as metal rails, used two-by-fours and miscellaneous pieces of scavenged metal and wood. His installations juxtapose and reveal the different surfaces and qualities found in similar materials: rusted metal, shiny stainless steel, painted bronze. The surfaces of Noland’s sculptures are used and marked, in this case with nail holes, staples, gouges and pencil marks. Two of the works have large, rectangular plates of black Plexiglas placed on the floor, creating the illusion that one is looking into a bottomless hole or pool of black ink or water.

Noland stacks and layers linear forms into vertical and horizontal works that have strong architectural associations—installations that reveal the bones or underpinnings of a structure by removing its sheltering skin or façade. One tries to imagine the functions of these sculptures—machines, benches, shelters—but the forms have been abstracted, shifted and twisted away from what might have been their original purpose. The works all provide openings and vistas that transform both the space in which they’re installed and the works themselves as one walks around them. Although Noland has only four pieces installed in the gallery, dating from 1990 to 1995, they fill the space with great presence.

The show has a very Zen-like quality because of its spare, almost austere installation, which effectively enhances the explorations in abstraction. This is a thought-provoking and challenging exhibition that’s worth seeing more than once.

©1995