In the 1950s and 1960s many young American abstract painters began to turn away from the hallmarks of much Abstract Expressionist art, in particular, its emphasis on gesture and heavily articulated surfaces. The critic Clement Greenberg coined the term “Post Painterly Abstraction” to describe this new generation’s approach. Greenberg discussed the basic tenets of this mode of painting—namely, an emphasis on “openness and clarity” that built on Jackson Pollock’s earlier all-over drip works—in an essay for his 1964 Los Angeles County Museum exhibition Post Painterly Abstraction, which included the work of Kenneth Noland and his friend Morris Louis. The two artists, who were both based in Washington, D.C., had begun to explore the essential qualities of color and surface in the early 1950s following a visit to the New York studio of Helen Frankenthaler, who was one of Greenberg’s most favored protégés at that time. Their encounter with her first “soak-stain” painting Mountains and Sea (1952), inspired them to experiment with the stain technique. Following their trip to New York, Noland and Louis worked in close proximity for several weeks before ultimately establishing their own personal approaches to fusing color with unprimed, unsized canvas. While Louis poured, Noland adhered to the more traditional brush and roller to apply his paint. In spite of these differences in technique, the two artists have historically been linked under the banners of both Post-painterly abstraction and Color Field painting.
Starting in the early 1950s, Noland began producing a number of series, each of which explores a range of shapes and color arrangements and remains committed to his staining method as a means of overcoming the tactility of the canvas support with the opticality of pure color. Like Frankenthaler and Louis, Noland experimented with thinned, acrylic-based paints, which made it nearly impossible to revise or modify colors after the paint had penetrated the (unprimed) surface. To stress the care needed to execute these works, he referred to them as “one-shot” paintings.
In 1963 Noland began a series focused on the chevron, or V-shape. Characterized by triangular bands of color pointed toward the bottom of the picture plane, this body of work provided an ideal means to experiment with the relationship between the painted image and its canvas support. In the earliest paintings on this theme, the entire surface is filled with paint, with the tip of the chevron—centred on the axis of symmetry—occasionally reaching past the edge of the picture plane. However, Noland soon began to leave areas surrounding the chevrons untouched, juxtaposing painted and unpainted surfaces to draw attention to the fusion of color and material. In 1964, with works such as Trans Shift, he started to de-centre the composition, pulling the tip of the chevron away from the line of symmetry, but maintaining the top edge of the support as the “base” of the shape. In shifting away from the centre, Noland could emphasize the tension between bounded and unbounded space.
An early and classic example of Noland’s offset chevron works, the large-scale Trans Shift requires prolonged viewing for the eye to take in its watery, acrylic colors and subtle structural details. By disrupting the two large blue bands with a single, bright green band and a small blue-green triangle at the chevron’s origin—colors seen often in the artist’s work of the 1960s—Noland produces a tension between wholeness and fragmentation, flatness and recession.