By Karen Wilkin © 1995
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.