Poons Essay

Karen Wilkin

Between November 2010 and March 2011, Larry Poons had three major exhibitions in New York, first Radical Surface 1985-1989, at Loretta Howard Fine Art, a survey of some of his most aggressively articulated paintings, and then, divided between two galleries, Lori Bookstein Fine Art and Danese, an ample selection of his brilliantly colored, exhilarating recent work. During roughly the same period, in Washington, D.C., an imposing 1981 canvas figured importantly in a special installation of works from the museum's collection, Washington Color and Light, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and three of the sizzling early "lozenge" paintings that first established Poons's reputation were featured at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. For those of us who have been long-term fans of this remarkable painter's audacious, idiosyncratic work this concentration was very welcome. (I'm told that younger artists also greeted the shows with particular enthusiasm.) It was also overdue. Poons, who will be 74 in the fall of 2011, has, inexplicably, not had a large museum show in recent years, so the opportunity to see a substantial number of his new paintings, handsomely presented, was something to rejoice at; since, equally inexplicably, he has yet been the subject of a major museum retrospective, the fact that the exhibitions at Loretta Howard, the Corcoran, and the Hirshhorn allowed us to revisit his earlier efforts, albeit without any continuity, was a bonus.

The paintings with which Poons first announced himself as an artist to be watched with close attention, in the 1960s, when he was still in his twenties, were elegantly constructed, optically precarious expanses in which small elliptical dots of intense color were disposed in orderly but slightly irrational arrangements against fields of even more intense hues. Because of their superheated colors, the little ellipses seemed to vibrate against the saturated grounds, creating pulsating afterimages and making us question our perceptions. These "lozenge" pictures were at once carefully plotted and unpredictable. The memory of an organizing grid haunted the placement of the ovals but our expectations of symmetry and regularity remained constantly unfulfilled. Poons explains his way of constructing pictures, at the time, as the result of his feeling that he couldn't draw and, because of this, preferring to map the locations of the dots before painting them. The tense, disciplined equilibrium of their placement - a kind of visual counterpoint, in the musical not the metaphorical sense - reminded us that before dedicating himself to painting, Poons studied at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. (He also studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.) It might be accurate to say that the lozenge paintings were composed like atonal music; the sequence and disposition of the elliptical dots obeyed a kind of logic, but it was the elusive logic of - say - a tone row, not of the familiar harmonic system in which tension is elicited and then released by moving away from and then returning to a resolving tonic note. In the lozenge paintings, tension exists between the seeming irregularity of the placement of the ellipses, their destabilizing, shimmering color, and their implicit, if hard to grasp, orderliness. That implicit orderliness suggests that we could decipher Poons's system, if we looked long enough and hard enough, but in the end, it eludes us. We have to relinquish all hope of cracking the determining organizational code - if indeed, there is one - and give ourselves over to pure visual experience.

The lozenge pictures, which were first shown at Richard Bellamy's Green Gallery, in 1962, and were included in such landmark exhibitions as the Museum of Modern Art's The Responsive Eye, in 1965, and Henry Geldzahler's 1969-1970 survey at the Metropolitan Museum, New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, won Poons international acclaim. But by the late sixties, he had abandoned the crisp execution and optical virtuosity of these highly admired pictures - which he claimed had never particularly interested him but was simply a "by-product" of his way of constructing a painting. He began to investigate a subtler palette, a more physical use of paint, and less restrictive types of structure and paint handling. The lozenges grew larger and began to drift freely against subtly modulated grounds; paint application and the picture surface grew more varied. (Geldzahler also included several pictures of this type in New York Painting and Sculpture.) Over the next few years, Poons continued to test the expressive limits of acrylic paint - which he had adopted when it was still a new, slightly experimental medium, on the helpful advice of Agnes Martin - making surprising pictures by staining, pouring, and puddling, eventually arriving at canvases with crusty, sometimes fissured surfaces and spontaneous-seeming color shifts in a palette that deployed Rococo pastels and ambiguous neutrals, sometimes both at the same time, with equal success.

All of these works were met with serious and enthusiastic attention. In an era when artists were expected to spend several decades gradually achieving mature work, before anyone paid much attention to what they were doing, Poons, who was not yet thirty five, was recognized as having made works that enlarged the possibilities of non-referential painting in distinctly original ways. Although he was often associated with the Color Field painters, all fifteen or more years his senior, championed by Clement Greenberg - Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitksi, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis, among others - Poons's work always remained distinct from theirs, despite his sharing their passionate belief in the primacy of color and the expressive power of chromatic relationships. "It's all about light," Poons has frequently said. "Color is light." In Poons's work, however, unlike that of the Color Field painters, these convictions were revealed not as absolutes embodied by vast sheets of color, but as contingencies demonstrated by small, fluctuating elements. He had taken as his starting point such prototypical approaches as Piet Mondrian's radical abstractness, Jackson Pollock's all-overness, and Frankenthaler's way of letting paint (apparently) determine its own disposition on the canvas, and expanded the implications of these iconic works. Yet Poons was not so much interested in challenging precedent as in challenging himself, refusing to settle for what he knew he could do. As he has often said, "I like to paint what I've never painted before." He was also increasingly interested in what he refers to as "getting out my way" - adopting methods that not only circumvented preconception but made it all-but impossible, risking disaster in order to work as purely as possible out of informed intuition, instinct, and (for lack of a better phrase) raw talent, rather than relying on calculation and cautious judgment to produce a successful painting. All of Poons's works subsequent to his abandoning the "system" that resulted in the lozenge paintings make this desire clear, but at the beginning of the 1970, he took things to extremes. He began to employ a method that was essentially the painterly equivalent of high wire-walking without a net - making pictures in a way that could be compared to the aerialist Philippe Petit's legendary walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, although Poons's daring studio practice predated Petit's amazing 1974 feat by three years.

Quite simply, in 1971, Poons began making pictures by flinging buckets of paint against canvas tacked to the walls of his studio, painting the entire length of a roll and then, utilizing a technique common to his generation, cropping the final images out of those expanses. In a sense, he was simply realizing the implications of Pollock's pour and drip method, expanding the scale of the generating gesture, making it more physical and less subject to will by substituting full-body "actions" for Pollock's delicate flicks of the wrist, while still, as Pollock did, making the liquidity of the medium part of the meaning of the finished painting. This modernist art historical pedigree notwithstanding, the analogy with Petit's audacious walk stills holds - with, of course, obvious, important differences. The wire-walker defied gravity, risking death with each step; Poons, quite the opposite, exploited gravity, co-opting its effect on rivulets of paint as a drawing tool, but he risked the death of the painting with each throw. Clearly, in human terms, there was exponentially less at stake in the studio than on the high wire, but given Poons's fierce intensity about excellence in art, in aesthetic terms, something similar obtained. Just why the result of a seemingly random, but magically controlled act was, far from being an incoherent mess, so frequently a compelling, visually exciting, emotionally stirring composition is one of those mysteries that forces one to believe in the power of sheer, unalloyed, innate ability. Poons definitely believes in it. "It wasn't Beethoven's fault that he was so great," he has said, in speaking of excellence in art. "It wasn't Rembrandt's fault that he was better than the other painters of his time."

Over the years, Poons investigated the possible permutations of his uninhibited method, playing with scale, density (both literal and suggested), and extension, as well as with the orchestration of complex hues. Some "thrown" pictures are loose, enormous expanses that we experience incrementally, as Poons shifts temperature, tonality, and mood across the width of the painting, leading us along with relaxed, widely spaced, rhythmic rivers of color. Others are dense, taut, and compressed, like contained walls of liquid pigment, narrow cascades that suggests thickness and impenetrability. Some are lushly chromatic; others, near-monochromes or constructed with variations on grey, off-white, or almost imperceptible tints. In earliest of the thrown pictures, there were often notable surface inflections, from thinly stained canvas to thick, ropy streams of paint to slender rivulets to explosions of color, where paint had puddled. Later, Poons usually constructed his loaded surfaces with repeated throws, building up irregular layers and ribbons of colors that fuse into a dense, bumpy surface, like some fecund, primordial substance somehow suspended before us.

The thrown paintings are usually very active, their multiple strands of color pulsing in ways that recall, although at a different speed and rhythm, the vibrations of the lozenge pictures. Often, it appears that the chromatic relationships, both dramatic and subtle, on which the paintings depend were too complex for the eye and mind to comprehend consciously, so that we, once again, have to abdicate any wish to interpret or explicate and surrender ourselves to pure, wordless visual perception. At the same time, despite this chromatic instability, the dense waterfalls of paint are also uncannily still, as if (like Petit suspended between the Twin Towers) gravity had been made irrelevant. While the thrown paintings carry the memory of the liquid properties of paint, its flow has been suspended; the runs and threads of pigment have been arrested in mid-fall and presented for our scrutiny and delight. Sometimes the finished image reverses the direction in which it was made, implying an upward bloom, rather than a downward plunge, adding another kind of contradiction.

That kind of contradiction preoccupied Poons for much of the 1980s. He increased the tension in his pictures, slowing down the flow of paint and creating more variables in his "drawing" by putting obstacles in its path, which paradoxically both intensified the material presence of the pictures and made the paint itself seem more fluid and insubstantial. In these works, radiant hues coexist with complicated, richly textured surfaces whose bulges, crags, and hollows are achieved by applications of a staggering variety of materials, from crumpled and rolled paper in the early 1980s to, in the late 1980s, more aggressive substances that sometimes resist description.

By the 1990s, these bold additions had become cut-out elements, placed on the surface of the canvas, not to interrupt flow but to function as "armatures" for zones of color that both define and cancel the "real" shapes. Patches and sweeps of tender color, flickers of dark and light, drifts of rough texture, and swoops of whiplash drawing all conspired to evoke muscular configurations that were at once completely abstract, about themselves alone, and haunted by overtones of everything from landscape to the vernacular man-made environment to outer space. Although these images seemed improvised and spontaneous, they, in fact, derived from rapid, vital drawings that distilled perceptions of the real world into cacophonous patterns and shapes; if those perceptions reflected Poons's enthusiasm for high-speed motorcycles and his frequent participation in motorcycle races, that might account for the raucous energy and fragmented images of both the drawings and paintings. But the enhanced physicality and outrageousness, teetering on the brink of vulgarity, of these works also suggested a parallel with that of Poons's friend Frank Stella. Stella, like Poons, was recognized very early for thoughtfully constructed, uncompromisingly abstract paintings, and later, in his mature work, essentially reinvented illusionistic pictorial space. In his relief-like "constructed paintings," Stella replaced traditional painting's fictive rendering of three-dimensional form and space with real projection, enhanced with often garish color, riotous patterns, glitter, and an arsenal of spots, squiggles, and hatches. Poons, in the same way, deliberately violated the supposedly sacrosanct picture plane, punctuating it with an almost incomprehensible range of projecting elements, in pursuit of greater pictorial intensity.

Poons's exuberant works of the 1990s announced new possibilities for painting on canvas, yet, characteristically, he once again reinvented himself, building on his earlier propositions to explore "what I've never painted before." Since about 2003, he has made vibrant, light-struck paintings, such as those seen in New York last spring, that simultaneously challenge and seduce with their sinuous, tangled brushstrokes, their glorious, unnamable color, and their provocative double sense of the transitory and the inevitable. It's as if Poons had brewed a volatile compound by mixing the abstractness, linear density and all-overness of Pollock's poured paintings with the ravishing hues, the sense of the natural world, and the expansiveness of Claude Monet's late works, adding, as a catalyst, a wholly 21st century component of amplified brilliance; "Bonnard on acid," a fellow painter quipped at a Poons opening. The recent canvases are as complex, chromatically, as the thrown paintings and as visually unstable as the lozenge pictures, even though they are, literally, hand-painted, in a more or less traditional way. "I never thought I could draw," Poons says, "but then I discovered I could." The paintings from the 1990s, with their cut-out shapes and rhythmic marks pointed the way. Since then, Poons's generously scaled canvases have been as much about the hand and inventive mark-making as they have been about color, the materiality of paint, and being alert to what happens during process of making. Just as the memory of the grid persisted in the placement of the oval ellipses, in his paintings of the 1960s, Poons's playful drawn responses to the world around him, made explicit in his paintings of the 1990s, seem to underlie his most recent fluctuating, coloristically lush compositions.

Chromatic relationships, tempo, temperature, and scale shift, in the recent works, depending upon our viewpoint. From a distance, we lose ourselves in sinuous coiling and uncoiling strokes, follow trails of particular, albeit indescribable, hues across long distances, and get swept along by big gestures; move closer and we become engaged by small knots of astonishing color. Like the natural world, these paintings are the sum of multiple, complex, small-scale incidents that from a distance become elusive, apparently mobile expanses. In the most recent works, density varies; some paintings are opulent tapestries of energetic strokes, while others deploy more widely spaced events against thin washes and stains. Yet whether dense or (relatively) sparse, the complex web of color remains at once completely alluring and difficult to come to terms with. Turn away from one of Poons's recent paintings and it appears to change while our attention is elsewhere, surprising us with new harmonies and rhythms when we return.

Despite Poons's many changes in direction over the past five decades, powerful constants dominate his work. He has always exalted color and always turned a wealth of hues into singular, richly inflected, confrontational expanses. He has always celebrated the physical character of paint - its ability to be thick or thin, liquid or resistant. Perhaps the most potent constants in Poons's approach are his life-long questioning of assumptions about what a painting can be and his implicit faith in the primacy of direct, wordless experience, both in making and responding to works of art. "If we could only make paintings that look as good as the paint," Poons once said. He has.

'Five Decades' ©2011 Karen Wilkin
This essay was originally publishedin the Hopkins Review 4.4 (fall 2011)