The Destiny of Larry Poons: Larry Poons Paintings 1971 - 1980by Robert C. Morgan
Jacobson Howard Gallery
January 15 - February 25, 2008
Larry Poons has been on the scene for many years. By the scene, I refer both to contemporary art history and to the regenerative impulse that has accompanied his work over the past four decades. Known for his optical dot paintings of the 1960s, Poons was included in The Responsive Eye at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965. This exhibition, curated by William Seitz with close to a hundred artists, was an international exhibition that surveyed the Op Art phenomenon that has spread around the world since the late 1950s. While Poons never considered himself an optical artist, the exhibition gave his paintings much attention. Dissatisfied with painting highly calculated dots on the background of a grid, Poons quickly moved onwards with elliptical paintings that soon jumped forward into a genre that, according to the critic Clement Greenberg, was related to “post-painterly abstraction,” or, in Poons’ case, a kind of idiosyncratic expressionist color field style known by other critics of the late 1960s as “lyrical abstraction.”
The recent exhibition of paintings from the decade of 1970s, entitled Throw, Pour, Drip, Spill & Splash, follows a transitional, yet marvelously anamorphic period where the ellipses no longer conform to calculations on a grid but instead impale the surface as they collide into one another from all directions. The current exhibition could be labeled as a historical show, but, in fact, this work feels fresher today than when it first appeared in the 1970s. Beginning with the mural-scaled “Railroad Horse” (1972)—a large horizontal painting, recently praised by the artist’s colleague, Frank Stella, as a groundbreaking work—these paintings may have seemed slightly out of touch at the time they were painted. They were more extreme (mannerist?) than Jules Olitski’s drip paintings around the same time, and somehow indirectly defiant of Noland’s concept of “razor-thin” paint and Greenberg’s “flatness.” They simply did not follow the logic of color field painting or any of the other formalist concepts that were extant at the time. They were aesthetically weird drippy, splashy paintings. Even so, the title of the current exhibition seems inappropriate. It gives Poons a pop orientation, and fails to suggest the change of aesthetic attitude that makes these paintings relevant today.
They are relevant in that they are no longer layered with an expectation to follow the canon of formalism or color field painting. They stand on their own in the dull mist of so many faulty attempts to bring abstract painting back to the foreground of critical attention. (One of the big problems here is that there is so little “criticism” available to deal with works of art that require a critical (as opposed to a theoretical) vantage point.) Listening to Poons speak about color and the satisfaction he feels when it brings light to the surface of a painting is about as far from the kind of rhetoric exercised in graduate art history classrooms today as Pollock is from Warhol or, in more topical terms, as Obama is from Bush. Poons adamantly believes that the greatest resonance of light in a painting is a testament to the greatness of a painting. He is constantly referring to Titian, Rubens, and Beethoven, whose greatness, from his perspective, derived from their ability to make you feel the light or, in the case of Beethoven, to make you feel the lightness. Shying away from formulas, Poons believes that the fundamental attribute of painting is color, and color is what creates the sensation or sensory awareness of light.
In addition to color, one may also cite issues like cropping, format, and scale as important components in these paintings. For example, in “Festinniog” (1975) and “Old Dominion” (1980), both paintings reveal the spattering of thrown color at the top edge. In “Claudio” (1981), the spattered color elements at the top have been eliminated through cropping. This gives “Claudio” less depth and more direct surface resonance, while “Festinniog” and “Old Dominion” retain the sense of illusionist interplay between two types of color on either side of a diagonal horizon near the top edge. The spattered color is more direct, whereas the falling slides of paint create an automatic mixture as the hues inevitably pool together. In the dominant lower portion of these paintings there is an all-over sense of whiteness, suggesting that Poons covered the surface with wet white pigment to catch the pigment as the paint slid from the upper edge into the complex mixture that defines the majority of the surface.
Poons speaks of complexity in positive terms, believing that for a painting to be complex means that it is liberated from the constraints of being one thing, and therefore, offering a single sensation. Concomitantly, the artist who allows complexity into his work also retains a greater freedom to expose the intricacies of color on an emotional level without necessarily being aware of the action or the cause-and-effect response.
To see these paintings today, nearly thirty years after many of them were painted, is like a sparkling reflection of sunlight when a hidden treasure is first unearthed. But then what appears as gold may, in fact, be iron pyrite or “fool’s gold,” as the expression goes. So how do we know that these painting by Poons are significant?
In an important essay in Greenberg’s later career, titled “Can Taste be Objective?” (1972), the critic states that taste in art is established through consensus and that all the great art that has come down to us has happened by way of a consensus. Ironically, the artist Marcel Duchamp in “The Creative Act” (1957) asserted a very similar point of view, namely that the appreciation of great art cannot be imposed; it will only happen by consensus. In the case of Poons, who clearly aspires to greatness in painting, we might ask if the consensus runs in his favor. But before we ask this question, we might reevaluate the meaning of consensus as being much more than fashion or instant trends, just as democracy is more than the illusion of majority rule. It is conceivable that taste takes longer than a generation to form a consensus, particularly in an era of media manipulation where memory exists by default in the digital overflow of mindless, panic-ridden bits of information. In view of this, my hunch is that a true consensus has been delayed in relation to Poons, as, in the meantime, we struggle to justify the prices of Koons.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.