A byword for urban grit, American abstract painters shared a perverse taste for country houses: thus Jackson Pollock's cottage on Long Island, or Willem de Kooning's nearby in East Hampton. The most extreme example of this was Kenneth Noland, who, in 1963, bought a farm called The Gully in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, from the estate of the recently dead poet, Robert Frost. It was in Vermont that Frost had written his best loved works, including "After Apple-Picking" and "Mending Wall" – odes to a Currier & Ives America that was dying even as he noted it. Noland, whose influences as an artist included the cerebral paintings of Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers and who had, in 1960, been anointed heir apparent to the Abstract Expressionists by their kingmaker, Clement Greenberg, seemed as aesthetically far from Frost as it was possible to be.
And yet the choice of Frost's barn as a studio was telling. Born in 1924 to a prosperous medical family in Asheville, North Carolina, Noland returned there in 1946 after wartime service in the Near East as a cryptographer. In the early 1930s, Albers, fleeing Nazi closure of the Bauhaus, had taken over the art department of a small liberal arts school in the town. In its two decades of existence, the list of staff and alumni at Black Mountain College would come to comprise an A to Z of the American avant-garde: artists Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and John Chamberlain, architect Buckminster Fuller, choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage. From Asheville would emerge a second, post-Pollock generation of American abstract painting; cooler, more appraising, less prone to bar-room brawls.
At first glance, Noland's work of the time seems to fulfill this prophecy by its orderliness. By the mid-1950s, he was painting what remain his trademark pictures: large, square canvases whose surfaces – impeccably flat, as Greenberg demanded – bore concentric circles of thin, translucent pigment. In 1955, Jasper Johns had made his first "Target" paintings, and it is often assumed that Noland's bull's-eye images were a response to these. (While Noland was living in Washington DC, the younger Johns was in the hotbed of Lower Manhattan.) Formal coincidence apart, the two sets of work could not have been less alike. Johns' targets were under-drawn, painted in slow encaustic and full of associations. Noland's pictures were kinetic, freehand and plainly abstract, playing off circles against squares to free up their real subject, which was colour.
This was not the systematic colour of Mondrian or Albers but the emotional colour of Matisse. In 1948, Noland had used the GI Bill to move to Paris, studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière under the sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Although he returned to America with nothing of Zadkine's expressive primitivism, he did come back with Matisse's feel for the emotional tension between colour and form. Teaching at the Catholic University in Washington DC with the painter Morris Louis, Noland began to experiment with geometric shapes, these evolving into the unbroken areas of pigment which would give their name to Colour Field painting, the dominant school of American abstraction after Pollock. If Noland expunged signs of his own hand from his work, it was to emphasise rather than conceal its poetic nature. What mattered was colour, some of his canvases including over 30 tints and hues and juxtaposing such unlikely neighbours as orange and magenta.
Robert Frost had compared the writing of free verse to playing tennis without a net, and he might equally have included Pollock's hand-dripped dramas. Moving to Frost's farm after the death of Louis in 1962, Noland set about weaving nets of his own, first of circles and chevrons, then of diamonds and straight lines.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these to the last half-century of American painting. For the first 20 of those years, Kenneth Noland was American abstraction, his influence spreading beyond the US to include, among many others, the British sculptor Anthony Caro. It was Noland who first suggested that Caro work in series, which he has done ever since. The sculptor would spend part of each summer at The Gully, sharing studio space with his host; it was he who included Caro in a show called "Noland, Louis and Caro" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968.
Noland's assessment of his own work was typically cryptic, and typically poetic: "I think of painting without subject matter as music without words," he said. Critics of the acuity of Time magazine's Robert Hughes spotted this sensuous paradox, Hughes reviewing Noland in 1977 under the headline "Pure, Uncluttered Hedonism". But a later generation of writers, dazzled by the bright lights of Op and Pop, came to see his chevrons and straight lines as soulless, and Noland's critical star faded from the 1980s on.
His life, like his work, was a mixture of order and passion. Thrice divorced, he could be reticent and withdrawn, a quality his daughter, the sculptor Cady Noland, has inherited by refusing to show her work at all. He was, above all, serious about his art, avoiding what he called "that seductive city" – New York – to plough his own aesthetic furrow. Noland claimed to be "interested [in representing] those things only the eye can touch," and that, for 60 years, is what he did.
Kenneth Noland was undoubtedly one of the great masters of 20th-century art, writes Sir Anthony Caro. He took his lead from the all-over paintings of Pollock, and instead found the centre of the square canvas. This leap gave birth in the Sixties to his series of circle paintings. Within this simple format he invested each work, some as large as six feet by six, with radiant, original colour. These works he followed by opening out the painting by means of the chevron, and later still, he introduced drawing in an entirely new way by shaping the canvas itself.
He was the most intelligent artist I ever met. He brought such a breadth to his work as to make the viewer gasp. His talk was without any pretension, devoid of "art speak". The years I spent in Vermont in the company of Ken Noland and Jules Olitski were the most stimulating of my career. He loved the company of artists. Modest and self-depreciating, his humour and fun were infectious; he was a pleasure to be with. At the present moment his work does not receive the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, his ravishing, classical paintings lift the spirit and will eventually be acclaimed again. He will surely be recognised as the key central figure of post abstract-expressionist painting.
Kenneth Clifton Noland, abstract painter: born Asheville, North Carolina 10 April 1924; married Cornelia Langer (divorced, two sons, one daughter), Stephanie Gordon (divorced), Peggy Schiffer (divorced, one son), Paige Rense; died Port Clyde, Maine 5 January 2010.