LARRY POONS RADICAL SURFACE:1985-1989
LARRY POONS RADICAL SURFACE:1985-1989 Essay by
DAVE HICKEY NOVEMBER 4 – DECEMBER 23, 2010 Opening Reception November 4, 6:00 – 8:00pm
525 West 26th Street New York NY 10001 212.695.0164 www.lorettahoward.com
F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that the careers of American artists have no second acts. Larry Poons provides the exception that proves the rule. It’s almost impossible to imagine a smoother first act or a rougher second than Poons has had. The sleek urbanity of Poons’ early paintings are contradicted at every point by the roughness of his late ones. Even so, the real distinction between Poons’ early paintings and his late ones resides more in our perception of their self-possessed dignity than in the objects themselves—and why not? The dignity of high modernist painting is one of its defining attributes, yet somehow, over the years, we have fallen into the habit of addressing works of art as if they were advertisements, as if they were addressing us personally rather than the oth-
worse, but there are no maneuvers that channel a painting’s energy toward the beholder. Only narcissism can do this, and narcissism inhabits a domain well beyond the vocabulary of painting. Good paintings, in Poons idiom, bear with them the aura of an impersonal fate that redeems the artist’s defects. Poons himself attributes the eccentricities of his art to the fact that he is not comfortable with his drawing; he attributes the eccentricities of Jules Olitski paintings to the struggle Olitski carried with his painting. As Picasso said, by our faults we are saved. It is true enough, of course, that the imperial dignity and autonomy to which Poons’ paintings aspire is not much available in the present marketplace, or even dreamed of, but that doesn’t make it feel any less right.
er way around. We assume that the aggression of Poons’ painting is directed toward ourselves, when, in fact, the aggression is directed by the artist towards the work of art and we are mere observers. In this sense Poons’ paintings are battlefields. They portray the residue of antique struggles. So the question is not about the dignity of Poons’ painting. Dignity is an antique virtue but a real one. The question is about the evolution of our own narcissism and our recent propensity for turning every artistic exchange into a reality-television-show starring ourselves. When I asked Larry Poons a question about the nature of our responses to his paintings, he responded as if the issue had never occurred to him, as if it were none of his business. Poons answered in the old language of the Cedar Tavern. There are good paintings and bad paintings. There are maneuvers that make a painting better and others that make a painting
There is something very clean about standing in the presence of so much primal and self-contained violence. What we feel is the absence of themes, trademarks, and mass marketing strategies aimed at selling examples of an artist’s work to the casual passerby. Cleansed in this way, unfortunately, Poons’ works don’t sell one another. Gathered together, they are not text-book examples— one of which might serve as well as another. They are warriors at one another’s throats, and this agon is invigorating enough to argue for the potential of a paradigm shift—for the possibility that Poons’ old language might be hovering on the brink of a return. Consider the ongoing collapse of regional idioms, the pallor of sociological cant and the fading of cultural signifiers. Observe the spectacle of diversity dissolving into global entropy, and the escalating collapse of conceptual middle management on the global art scene.
Given these circumstances, when the travelling circus of fairs and biennial finally collapses (should it ever collapse), we will, almost of necessity, stop arguing about which cultural ideology or agenda is the better one and argue once again about which is the better work of art. The question of what a work of art might be “good for” will remain, or course, but it will remain secondary and dependant upon the work being good or bad in the first place. The artist’s task will be to execute a “good” work purged of vulgar manners. Poons’ geological language will depend upon its eluding the vices of nature and culture compounded. In a good painting of this sort, there will be no inference that the “artist” and “nature” are in any way identified. There will be no inference that “nature” itself means anything at all. There will be no inference of per-
The haunted realm of pictoriality, however, is always there because pigment is earth, and art is pigment, however it is configured. In some configurations, we sense the buried city beneath the cliff, the nest of bones beneath the accrual of color. From pigment, the painting arises to become pigment redeemed. When we read the paintings top to bottom we feel the surge of gravity. When we read them left to right they have the music of a band playing a song. There are long sustained chords; there are splashes of bells and cymbals; there are recurring squiggles of melody. As a surface, the desert of paint creates an effect like Titian reversed. The color of paint thrown last, it seems last. It becomes more visible as one approaches the painting and herein resides the longevity of the painting: a long blurred rectangle seen at
sonal content in the geological configurations of the paint, nor any inference that a “geological” effect is intended. The simplest way of explaining Poons’ process was given to me by a shy Italian professore. As we stood in front of Boticelli’s “Primavera,” the professore pointed out that the natural source of every pigment in Boticelli’s painting is represented in the painting itself—re-incarnated, as it were—thus providing an exquisite Catholic explanation of Renaissance painting. The material world in fact becomes the material world in picture. In Poons’ paintings there is a sense that the applied pigment has risen like an iceberg up through its representational plane into a new resolution. The relative thickness or thinness, brightness or darkness of a Poons’ painting depends on the moment that the painting feels finished and not on the moment it looks like something else.
a distance assembled by a scattered overlay of intricate details, not one of which is available to the eye simultaneously, in a glance. Like Bridget Riley and Ken Price in their own idioms, Poons creates images that cannot properly be seen at once—that must be visually collected and constructed in the feeling mind of its beholder. The final question, then, concerns Poons’ ability to achieve a practice of this maturity at this peculiar time. The answer, I think, is that Poons seems dedicated to doing the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. First, he abandons a successful practice in painting at the zenith of its popularity; then he rejects his friends and colleagues for the Florida Keys; then, at the very nadir of painting’s popular vogue, Poons returns to painting in a style that is antithetical to the “popular” style that made him famous, Then he paints and waits and paints and waits and frets as the wheel goes round, hoping that it will. DAVE HICKEY
October 2010 5
Windley Cross 1989, acrylic on canvas 84 x 94 inches
Brahms in Rio 1982, acrylic on canvas 84 1/4 x 170 1/2 inches fold over: detail
The What Sonata 1989, acrylic on canvas 87 x 118 inches
Southern Exposure 1986, acrylic on canvas 621/2 x 208 inches fold over detail
Rogue Stadium 1989, acrylic on canvas 84 x 94 inches
The Unknown 1985, acrylic on canvas 833/4 x 133 inches fold over: detail
This catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition LARRY POONS RADICAL SURFACE: 1985-1989 November 4 – December 23, 2010 Loretta Howard Gallery 525 West 26th Street New York NY 10001 212.695.0164 www.lorettahoward.com
front & back cover: The Unknown, (detail) inside front cover: Artist’s studio in Islamorada, Florida Keys, 1988-1991 page 1: Larry Poons’ sketchbooks, late 1980’s page 2: Interior of Larry Poons’ studio in Islamorada, Florida Keys, 1988-1991 page 3: Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, c. 1482, tempera on panel, 80 x 124 inches Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-1523, oil on canvas, 691/2 x 75 inches Interior of Larry Poons’ studio in Islamorada, Florida Keys, 1988-1991 above: Paint covered chair in Larry’s studio below: photo illustrated on front page The Birmingham News, October 7, 2010 back inside cover: Larry at the race track Photo Credits: All photos of Larry’s studio by Paula Poons Photo of Larry at Talladega Raceway by Art Farley Painting photos by Ali Elai, Camerarts Photos of Larry racing in Ghost leathers by Joel Perlman Photo of Larry from The Birmingham News by Bernard Troncale