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Richard Pousette-Dart and Peter Young

Richard Pousette-Dart and Peter Young

John Harber

September 16, 2007

Richard Pousette-Dart will always come with a label, the New York school. Most people know little else about him, and few artists would care to shake off a label like that. Besides, he earned it.

Most New Yorkers, however, will come to him walking up the ramp, to a Guggenheim tower gallery. They will see the largest room first and his later work. They will also see busy, even tacky patterns and thick, reflective surfaces. They may look dazzling at one moment, labored and mannered at the next. Either way, they look like anything but Abstract Expressionism. Richard Pousette-Dart’s Lost in the Beginnings of Infinity (private collection, 1991)

Perhaps they will suggest a “minor” Abstract Expressionist, the one that everyone can name but no one can quite remember. They definitely suggest an artist who went his own way. Born in 1916, Pousette-Dart remained a fixture through the alleged death of painting, as artist and teacher, until his death in 1992. Yet they also yield some alternative stories about Modernism in America. Together with some other half-forgotten test patterns by Peter Young, they give a sense, too, of what happened next.

The pure products of America

Anyone can explain the label. Pousette-Dart painted to the edge of the canvas, and increasingly he painted large. Call it a stretch, but the Guggenheim credits him with anticipating the mural scale of Jackson Pollock. He turned early to American themes, from Native American art to the A-Bomb, but never to the urban scene or the pastoral. The Modern snatched up a painting, The Desert, in 1940, when the older artists around him were just beginning to remap modern art with New York at its center.

He has all the right credentials, too. He went on to show at the Willard gallery, which had introduced William Baziotes and Mark Tobey. He exhibited with Betty Parsons, who took on Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. Much of his work in museums still dates from those years. His retrospective originated at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, curated by its director and associate curator.

And anyone can explain why the late work does not “look right.” For starters, the artist builds up a painting from stiff daubs of oil, many almost the size of a thumbprint and the thickness of fingernail. They run up against one another, overlay one another, and never quite bleed into one another. They cover every inch of canvas, with no breathing space in between, like Joe Zucker without the cotton candy. Pointillism has gone 3D.

Some stick to one color, and a few use all three primaries, but many rely on black, too, and almost all have a serious dose of white. Pousette-Dart often appears to have started with a layer of one color, already too dense to call a ground. With the next, he marks out what will become the thick lines of an image, without really drawing. With the rest, he both intensifies it and comes close to obliterating it. Colors blend, often into still more white, but optically.

One painting represents what he calls fragments of a poem—mostly repeated words on the theme of light and shadow. At least I think they are, since I challenge anyone to read it. The other images are, if anything, all too obvious. One might get the sun, the moon, and plenty of totems, perhaps with rectangular divisions in between. Titles, too, talk of universal truths. The artist distributes some patterns symmetrically or centrally, but for the most part he does not.

Pousette-Dart always has one eye on his craft, the other on eternity. He dwells on the signs and symbols, the mark of the artist’s self on the universe and the universe on himself, that Pollock in time learned to paint out. If one wants to call his generation Action Painting, the action here moves very, very slowly. If one wants to call it Abstract Expressionism, it is not all that abstract or expressive. The brushwork stabs, clots, and accretes rather than drips, smears, or slashes. If formalism once demanded flatness and purity, the surfaces are anything but flat, and both the images and the technique’s echoes of weaving are anything but pure.

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