Christa Noel Robbins

"Kenneth Noland’s Reichian Paintings"

Friday, December 15 // 14.30h // JGU Fakultätssaal Philosophicum


In the late 1950s the “post-painterly” abstractionist Kenneth Noland launched his concentric-circle series and, along with that series, his career. What is rarely discussed, however, is that Noland’s discovery of “the center of the canvas,” as he called it, was coincident with his discovery of the texts of the controversial, Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Noland’s ensuing commitment to a Reichian account of the psyche, one fundamentally grounded in the biophysical, also coincided with the painter’s turn to serial structure and his focus on painting’s externalized effects over its internal composition. Reichian therapy, which Noland practiced up until his death in 2010, promotes a body-based mode of therapy, which makes of a virtue of externality and understands the psyche to be the product of a physical interface between the self and the world. Moving away from Freud’s formulation, Reich viewed sublimation as “secondary” to social formations. Art in this context offers an opportunity for a socially specific, eminently material engagement with the human drives. That Noland’s denuded, “optical” abstractions could be read as a realization of Reich’s externalized and worldly understanding of the psyche requires that we move outside art historians’ characterizations of both late-modernist painting and the works that are thought to have displaced it. It also requires that we move outside painting, focusing not on its symbolic and figurative content, but on its effects. It is just such a move that Reich called for in his rejection of Freudian verbal analysis in favor of a hands-on encounter between doctor and patient. This paper offers a close reading of Noland’s paintings as enacting a similar encounter in his rejecting considerations of internal composition in favor of a viewer-oriented mode of production.

Christa Noel Robbins, a scholar of modernist and contemporary art, is an Assistant Professor of art history in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. She was the advisory editor of North American modernism for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, is a founding editor of the journal Open Set and has published in the Oxford Art Journal, Art Journal, Art History and Art in America. She is currently completing a book manuscript titled Unmaking the Self in Late-Modernist American Painting.