Larry Poons: New Paintings

Page 1

LARRY POONS



LARRY POON S New Paintings

February 1 - March 2, 2013

Presented jointly by:

DANESE and

525 WEST 26 ST NEW YORK NY 10001 212. 223.2227 212.695.0164 DANESE.COM LORETTAHOWARD.COM



LARRY POONS: Finding The Painting by Robert Pincus-Witten

Larry Poons tells me a dream: “I am in a painter’s studio, looking at the back of a painting. I am very distressed because, if I see the front, I’d know who I am. The front of the painting would be me. Finally, I look. It’s a Bonnard.”1 Can one really over interpret this dream? For starters, the dream is kind of true. There is a lot of Bonnard in Poons, well, in late Poons anyway though, to dwell on Bonnard misrepresents both Poons’s attachment to bright color (hardly his bag any longer) as well as traduces what a Bonnard and a Poons really look like. Still, Poons’s paintings do encompass the larger history of painting–not merely the swank choices of a Conceptualist present. Since the superficial values governing art today are being deeply questioned by a suddenly and radically changed economy this essay may be read as an act of awed appreciation in anticipation of critical revisions already upon us and more amply the artist’s due. A favored long horizontal format–the meta-structure of landscape–distinguishes nearly a half-century of Poons’s painting (despite several distinct stylistic periods and, of course, the presence of numerous vertical paintings in his work). Virtually all the modes of his work (with the exception of the earliest “Dot Paintings”) reference landscape; but, insofar as the “landscape” inherent to the new work is concerned, no sooner does a foliate figure become legible than it is challenged. As forms approach tactile illusion they are invalidated as figure/ground indices. As forms emerge so do they “not emerge,” both at one go. Poons’s paintings act out “landscape” as a long dénouement. The nervous, incremental strokes of Poons’s “landscapes” are born of memory–not observation–other than the vigilant observation of the events directly taking place on the canvas itself and the artist’s experience of his own self-generating process of painting. “It is intensely personal and intensely detached,” Poons says. Within Poons’s broad format there often seems to be a tripartite division –a center that occupies the artist’s greatest attention as the paintings dissipate toward their right and left hand sides. But, once this treble-fold structure is determined, the painter re-enforces and equalizes the lateral effects; hence, the work’s sense of a totalized, AbEx-derived “Allover” that mitigates any sense of privileged center. Of course, the working method just described is not the way Poons’s “landscapes” come about. Instead, in his vast Church Street studio, the artist tacks a long roll of canvas twill to the wall–Walter Darby Bannard remembers a run of eleven yards2 –and begins to paint in scattered energetic bouts working near-feverishly along the unfurled roll. Inventing and finding coves of foci, massing strokes about freshly-made gestures or suddenly-discovered past ones, Poons instrumentalizes chance (the very hallmark of Abstract Expressionist painting) as he moves along the canvas causeway. The process of Finding The Painting begins when this immense scroll3 is at last fully covered. Through a series of discretionary


decisions, Poons may locate some ten or twelve autonomous paintings within the whole. Then the croppings are made and the canvases stretched–explaining why the sides of the canvas stapled to the stretcher bars are also fully painted. So, Poons’s paintings really don’t begin with a barely-liminal tripartite structure at all. But once the “painting” is found, the centering/side effect is sensible and may be further strengthened by further emendations.4 The “tripartite” reading also affords the viewer the sense of looking at the work as if from a ledge or parapet that opens onto a wide valley or abyss–even as the painter is at pains to liberate the landscape from its status as a genre. One is tempted to call this “liberation” the essential ambition of the work, its intention (though intentionality realized is no guarantor of art). What it is liberated, of course, is the painting’s status as abstraction, that separate genre–more a genus really–one equal to and, for much of the twentieth century, superior to representationalism, even the representationalism of more recent type promoted by photography’s indenture to Conceptualism. The tripartite structure, of course, has a model close to hand, the “Waterlillies” (ca. 1920), the beloved Monet triptych at MoMA that we can call up from the basic images that we unspool in our minds at will. The work itself was a fundamental school for Abstract Expressionist painters in this country.5 The simultaneity of looking “at,” “into,” and laterally “across” the work ensures a constant shift in the experience of the painting as it oscillates back and forth from the local to the universal. Poons’s method of painting is comprised of small, energetic registers of cascading strokes. These nervous touches–many of them idiosyncratically struck from lower left to upper right–recall Cézanne’s verge-abstract foliage studies painted during his latter years. And yet, Poons’s painting raises an odd question: “What aspect of Cézanne’s illusion is Poons denying?” Perhaps its very vestigial illusionism. Poons says, “I feel more a bystander of my painting. It’s elusive as hell,” he says of this record of the markings of a rather spontaneous unconscious. “It’s just color, and these things just happen. My colors bracket Pollock and Newman” –though (despite their prestige) neither are colorists, while, clearly Poons is a colorist of a special type.6 Color, for Poons, be it chromatic or tonal, is never laid into a shape. There are no lines. Lines or, more properly, edges are, for Poons, simply where colors trail off, end. True, despite occasional traces of jewel-like color, Poons’s palette tends to the grayed and tertiary–Novembrist, oaken, dank, as if after a rain. In this respect, Poons’s color invokes far less a Bonnard (or any painter, really, drawn to the fulsome chromatics of the Impressionist tradition) but recalls the loner American landscapists–late George Inness, or Bruce Crane, Ralph Albert Blakelock to a degree, or even Albert Pinkham Ryder–the latter of peculiar significance to Pollock. To be sure, these late-nineteenth century figures were painters of autumnal views who (with the exception of Inness) worked in small format, a scale that concentrated the crepuscular effect of their darkened palettes. Now in his seventies, the vibrant color of Poons’s early paintings has, in maturing, grown somber except for rare, fleet passages of eccentric, acidic hues — like thalo-green or blue. “I now know why Soutine is good,” Poons says. “This is how it happened. He was trying to get the color right and instead he got the painting right.” Poons speaks in kôans.


Poons is working at the height of his powers–I am tempted to write, “once more at the height of his powers” since in measure, he has been punished for the very success of his classic “Dot Paintings” of the 1960s. These early paintings reflect Poons’s desire to have been a musician–once he was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. And music remains a vivid concern quite like his motorcycle racing, vital remnants of a youth drawn to the Beat and the maudit. “I had no business being a painter,” Poons recollects. “But painting had business with me.” Music helps explain an early attraction to systematization, an ordering manifest in the “Dot Paintings” though quite at odds with the larger body of Poons’s work. The system runs something like this. A small circle of color, a “dot,” is placed casually into the successive rectangles of a gridded canvas quite as if one tossed a coin into it. At times the painter might use two “dots” per unit. This simple system generates an astonishing visual pulsation. “Visually complex,” Poons explains. “Hell, that’s Bach!” This visual counterpoint was further accelerated by the occasional use of colors that “buzz”–saturated complementaries of equal value–a reminder of Joseph Albers’s color and his Bauhaus mantra “Less is More.”7 Despite their intense retinal charge, Poons’s “Dot Paintings” were also admired for their systematic clarity and quickly became classic examples of a methodical abstraction related, for example, to the “Black Paintings” of Frank Stella or the first Minimalist works of Carl Andre or Don Judd. To be sure, no sooner had Poons abandoned these impulsive tossings of circles, and subsequently, of ellipses–so was he pressed to continue on in this uncongenial vein–one that ran counter to his intensely idealistic and renegade predispositions. The density of surface that marks Poons’s subsequent works, his rejection of doctrine and the celebrity occasioned by his early works, represents a willed counter-life to his precocious fame. Granting Poons’s rogue nature, it was precisely a systematic abstraction that came under his immediate scrutiny. Shortly the ‘dots’ became ellipses and, of those, certain became extremely attenuated, almost lentil-shaped. At times these ellipses were painted directly on the canvas, at others, first painted upon another surface and counter-proofed onto the larger work. Before long, the system broke down. Ultimately it was abandoned. That now-distant moment is filled with memories of what was both excellent and fashionable–Post-Painterly Abstraction, Color Field Painting, artists of serious achievement being accorded serious rank, a list that included notables such as Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler; Young Turks–Frank Stella, Walter Darby Bannard and Larry Poons; powerful dealers–especially Andre Emmerich, whose network of affiliated galleries extended north to Canada and abroad to England; and young critics–Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Rose–who transformed the “Artforum” magazine of that date into a Greenberg house organ (though all, in differing ways, would break with the master). Entire art schools such as Bennington succumbed. But even as he was being feted, Poons’s work was drifting toward viscosity, thickness and congestion (characteristics that, in turn, have also been abandoned for some ten years now). These works deeply militated against Greenberg’s compelling theory regarding the etiological purity of painting as an ever-greater refinement of those properties most inherently particular to it–flatness, color, shape, touch–and his perception of “quality” as a connoisseur’s realization of those desiderata. As Poons’s work developed, one can read it as a quasi-Oedipal rejection of parental injunction.8


To be sure, these rogue developments of Poons’s art, at the very moment of his seeming thrall to Greenberg, were partly exploratory responses to the tactile and formal possibilities of the new water-based acrylic paints that were being developed by Leonard Bocour in the early-Sixties, paints that allowed for great liquidity, sprawl, violent differentiation as to thin or thick surface. But to believe that the formal properties that emerged in Poons’s work as he moved from the Seventies through the Nineties resulted from the physical nature of the paint he used is utterly materialist–Marxist, as it were–and lacking in human nuance. Formal change, I believe, is less the result of the nature of the medium than of biographical trauma–here arguably Greenbergian–that catalyzes stylistic shifts. As there is always an inherent drift toward virtuosity as the hand grows ever more dexterous in the use of any given medium, much of the seeming eccentricity of Poons’s complex mid-career work may be laid to a desire to avoid a merely empty virtuosity. And so, as the rejection of Greenberg grew marked, so was Poons pilloried for his own achievement–minimizing the importance, even the difficult beauty of his subsequent styles–from the “poured paintings” through the “Elephant Hide” paintings, through the dense Collaged paintings clotted with studio detritus–an evolution lasting two decades. “All painters have an urge for multiplicity, toward complexity,” he says. Fortunately, these achievements were also the stages necessary to arrive at the recent mature works, a second apogee for the painter and a new benchmark for contemporary American painting. (initially published in Larry Poons: New Paintings. New York: Danese, 2009)

1 All direct quotation was transcribed during visits with the artist in his studio on October 6 and October 22, 2008. 2 Larry Poons: Throw, Pour. Drip, Spill & Splash, Paintings 1971-1980. New York: Jacobson Howard Gallery; January, 2008, n.p. exhibition announcement. 3 Its connection to the Chinese or Japanese landscape scroll cannot be gainsaid nor, for that matter should the torah scroll or the spindled panoramas of the

early nineteenth century (think John Vanderlyn) be forgotten either.

4 One remembers the story of “Old” Turner on Varnishing Day. As the paintings of his fellow Royal Academicians were “skied:” if too light, Turner would

darken; too dark, Turner would lighten–thereby carrying the day. Else, why have a Varnishing Day in the first place?

5 The double oval of the “Nymphéas” of the Orangerie in the Tuilleries Gardens played a similar role for abstract painting following the Second World War–as

much for French painters as American painters who went to Paris at the time, some for extended periods, among them Joan Mitchell.

6 Of the great original AbEx group, de Kooning is the preeminent colorist. At times, Poons’s forms are generated from nature-inspired curvatures and motions–

quite de Kooning-like in their impulsive anthropomorphism.

7 Albers, a Helmholtzian color theorist was driven from Germany by the Nazis and assumed, as his first American post, a teaching position at the legendary

Black Mountain College. Subsequently, he directed the Yale School of Art. These positions underscore the immense effect on the kind of color that became normative to much advanced painting of the Sixties onward. Think “buzz.”


Robert Pincus-Witten, Prof. Emeritus in Art History at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is a leading scholar/critic of contemporary art. Several anthologies of his writings have been published, notably Postminimalism, which dubbed this broad transformation in contemporary sensibility, as well as numerous exhibition catalogues, critical essays and reviews. During his thirty years in academic life he was also an Editor of Artforum magazine and, then, an Editor of Arts Magazine. On leaving academia he became Director of Exhibitions for the Gagosian Gallery, then L&M Arts. Following twenty years in the private sector he is once more a chronicler of the contemporary scene as a Contributing Editor of Artforum.

8 Despite Greenberg’s undoubtedly influential social and artistic critique, the great critic himself was warped by his own conflicted feelings about his punishing, miserly, seemingly un-dying father. This ambivalence led Greenberg to deeply question ties of family and affection which, at times, led him to play off the members of his circle one against the other–a heartless game of shifting quasi-parental preferences. To be warmed by the Greenberg sun meant answering a sufferance that exacted both material and psychological tribute–a kind of deformation that, by Greenberg’s later years, was realized as both meanness and epicurean ostentation. This psychological profile with its dire consequences both public and private is tellingly drawn in Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg, A Life (New York, Scribner; 1997).



Untitled, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 74.75 x 67.5 in.



Untitled, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 73.5 x 106.5 in.



Tex Ritter, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 67.5 x 74.5 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 56 x 79.5 in.


Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 52.25 x 22.5 in.


Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 58.5 x 40.5 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 69.5 x 72 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 62.5 x 57.5 in.



Barreling, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 37.5 x 86 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 64.5 x 73.75 in.



The Venetian, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 68.5 x 78 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 62.5 x 85.75 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 66.5 x 72 in.



The Flying Blue Cat, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 73.5 x 105.5 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 64.25 x 74.5 in.



Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 65.5 in.



CHECKLIST 1.

Untitled, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 74.75 x 67.5 in.

2. Untitled, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 73.5 x 106.5 in. 3. Tex Ritter, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 67.5 x 74.5 in. 4.

Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 56 x 79.5 in.

5. Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 52.25 x 22.5 in. 6. Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 58.5 x 40.5 in. 7.

Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 69.5 x 72 in.

8.

Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 62.5 x 57.5 in.

9. Barreling, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 37.5 x 86 in. 10. Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 64.5 x 73.75 in. 11. The Venetian, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 68.5 x 78 in. 12. Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 62.5 x 85.75 in. 13. Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 66.5 x 72 in. 14. The Flying Blue Cat, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 73.5 x 105.5 in. 15. Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 64.25 x 74.5 in. 16. Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 65.5 in.


Published in conjunction with the exhibition Larry Poons: New Paintings Presented jointly by Danese, New York and Loretta Howard Gallery, New York February 1 - March 2, 2013 Catalogue © 2013 Danese, New York and Loretta Howard Gallery, New York Works of art © 2011-2012 Larry Poons Essay © 2013 Robert Pincus-Witten Photographs by Christopher Burke Studios Cover: The Flying Blue Cat, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 73.5 x 105.5 in. Page 36: Detail of Untitled, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 74.75 x 67.5 in.



DANESE and

525 WEST 26 ST NEW YORK NY 10001 212. 223.2227 212.695.0164 DANESE.COM LORETTAHOWARD.COM