LARRY POONS New Paintingsby Robert C. Morgan
Danese and Loretta Howard Gallery
February 1 – March 2, 2013
The recent exhibition of Larry Poons’s paintings carries a certain irrational logic that continues from where his former exhibition culminated three years ago. I would characterize the former show, also at Danese, as revealing a kind of regal, yet distant attitude toward painting, thereby suggesting a hesitant, but substantially transformative view of the painterly craft. In addition to a more relaxed aura—contiguous to the work in the current collaborative exhibition with the Loretta Howard Gallery—one may further detect a heightened chromatic and tonal awareness accompanied by a fortuity of formal means. Specifically, this refers to Poons’s regulated application of abstract brushwork combined with a seemingly spontaneous choice of color, which fills the surface space of the canvas, producing a low level optical sensation.
Rather than decipher distinct “visual” differences between these paintings (a critical task most viewers would be hard-pressed to do), one might glory, even frolic, in their ineluctable continuity and bravura. There is little doubt that the paintings are not composed on the stretchers but rather, are “framed” by the stretchers after the majority of the work has been completed. For the most part, the color and all-over rhythm that emanate from the “Untitled” paintings are fundamentally consistent with one another. (I mention “rhythm” given Poons’s longtime relationship to classical music, which in some ways was the origin of the optical dots employed in his early paintings from the 1960s.) In the present works, darker tonal variations take precedence over the choice of pure color. While primaries and secondaries exist in most of his paintings, these are overlaid on top of one another and further mixed with white and occasional earth tones. The tonal variations become darker when the blues and reds absorb into one another, thus giving way to resonant patches of deep violet. This is perhaps most evident in “The Venetian”(2012), which not only holds a darker saturation than the other paintings on display, but is one of the few with an actual title that enhances the work. (Somehow the reference to Venice carries the painting without the necessity of interpretation, which is probably what Duchamp meant when he argued in favor of titles “that take the mind to regions more verbal.” Here he proposed that some works of art require a verbal, even absurd prod to illuminate qualities hidden within the work. For example, another Poons title for a painting of a different order is “The Flying Blue Cat” (2011), which may reveal to viewers a region in the upper left space of the composition that illuminates the surface in ways previously not considered.)
The bluesman B. B. King once exclaimed, “It took me 50 years to learn how to play my songs the same way, as if they were all the same song.” I took this comment to mean the quality of sameness pervasive throughout his mature work. This thought concurs nicely with Poons’s current exhibition. The early evidence of the artist’s ability with the brush is first revealed in the late 1960s when he pulls away from the hard-edge elliptical dots that had come to signify his work by stretching and enlarging them, ultimately giving the shapes a translucent appearance that, by the ’70s, would eventually disappear into the surface. While his paint no longer flows downward from the splash of pigment-filled balloons, as it did in the ’70s, Poons now appears to carry a new sense of deliberation and confidence in the consistency of his brushwork.
There is little doubt that the success of the current exhibition is the result of a long journey of pushing the boundaries of classical painting—not through empty experimentation, but through a concentrated effort and clear knowledge of what painting means. This aspect of Poons’s work further corresponds to what one might expect to find from art history’s best painters, ranging from Jasper Johns to Brice Marden. This is to say that Poons has become less intent in his ongoing desire to harness the look of a surface or to take on the toil of the ages insofar as the history of recent painting exists. Further stated, the artist is now making some of the best paintings of his career, parallel, though not stylistically, to the late blossoming of Philip Guston. Poons is clearly a contender for an overview, in league with other painters who have assumed an upper echelon in contemporary American painting.
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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.