The Democracy of Touches: A New Reading of Richard Pousette-Dartby Phong Bui
Pace Gallery | September 6 – November 18, 2016
Altered States: The Etchings of Richard Pousette-Dart
Del Deo & Barzune | October 6 – December 16, 2016
In his landmark essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin carved out two intellectual and artistic temperaments: those who view the world by relating everything to a central, singular and specific vision, and those who thrive on a broad mélange of experiences. The potential for exploration that this idea offers is endless, since Berlin never implied that one was superior to the other. One might propose that Robert Ryman is a hedgehog and Joseph Beuys a fox, or similarly that Agnes Martin falls into the former category and Louise Bourgeois into the latter. This is not to exclude the subtle differences between any artists, nor to ignore the importance of shared aspirations, wants, needs, and desires.
In the last few decades, particularly in the last several years, we’ve observed that the cultural celebration of the hedgehog has gradually carved out ample space for the fox. How can we forget Ad Reinhardt’s popular centennial exhibit at David Zwirner, curated by Robert Storr in 2013? The artist’s seemingly distinct activities—the severe black abstractions, the prolific and caustic social and political graphic work, and the color slides of historical monuments, temples, and buildings that showed his equally prolific world travels and keen sense of photographic record keeping—were received in coexistence by jubilant viewers, especially young artists and art students (during the artist’s lifetime it would have been career suicide to show all simultaneously practiced sides together).
The question is, why? Perhaps we’ve learned to accept greater flexibility and appreciation for those who are driven by different impulses and capable of materializing them in equal terms, namely the foxes. Where does this hypothesis lead us? In my opinion, if Berlin proposed Tolstoy as an example par excellence of a fox who also believed in being a fox as opposed to Dostoevsky, who is nothing if a hedgehog, one can then identify quite a similar yet opposite case in the pictorial arts: Ad Reinhardt was a hedgehog who may have wished to be a fox, and Richard Pousette-Dart was a fox who liked being a fox through and through.
An extensive selection of seventeen paintings by Pousette-Dart is currently displayed at Pace; a second selection, of etchings made in a single year (between 1979 – 1980), is shown for the first time at Del Deo & Barzune. (Numerous paintings at Pace have not been seen since they were originally shown at Betty Parsons Gallery.) The two exhibits also evoke the artist’s memorable fifty-year survey at the Guggenheim Museum in 2007, which compelled me to look at his entire oeuvre in a new way.
What I have essentially discovered in my recent observations of Pousette-Dart’s work is that they appear to have been made for future generations of artists. Pousette-Dart’s maturity ripened early in part through his friendship with John Graham. One suspects that Graham’s theory of abstract painting—a potential synthesis of his obsessions with the occult, esoteric philosophies, Freud, Jung, “primitive” art and European modernism, revealed and defined in his book System and Dialectics of Art (pub. 1937)—appealed to the young Pousette-Dart’s sensibilities. What was so impressive was how he materialized those diverse references so confidently in his work. Take, for example, Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental (1941 – 42) which was painted when he was barely twenty-five years old. I should also note that he was the first of the New York School to make a mural-size painting (it measures 7.5 × 10 feet), and that his personal style owes nothing to the athletic gesture that is often identified with certain works by Pollock, de Kooning and Kline, or the subtle applications of the hard-edge geometry of Reinhardt, or the fields of suffused and unbroken color in Rothko and Newman. Yet unlike Graham, who by the ’50s began to reject Cubism, Surrealism, and abstraction in favor of figurative art, Pousette-Dart stayed on course with his commitment to abstraction until the very end. Whichever way his broad interests manifest in a complex and diverse repertoire of images, each painting, as Roberta Smith wrote in her New York Times review, “exemplifies the exultation of material that courses through much American painting.”1 This is the brilliant and indispensable truth about Pousette-Dart’s art. He used dense layering of paint, pigment, and form to create complex light infused compositions, a hallmark of his work that remained constant throughout his career. Whether one can detect similar palimpsests of vertical ghostlike auras in Blue Image (1950), Presence (1956), and Ossi #2 (1958), the paint applications in each differ vastly. It’s also important to understand that these are singular paintings that represent larger series and it is the protean as well as prolific nature of his sensibility that allowed these investigations to evolve in parallel while perpetually cross-pollinating. In the first, a transparent and uneven blue wash pours over occasional spots of yellow and red, and light pencil marks hover around a skeleton of unmediated black lines made by his usual method of squeezing paint directly out of the tube. The second was painted with a minimal palette of dark gold, light brown, and white, over a crusty, thick, and irregular yet fine stucco-like texture. The third has a heavy, coarse texture, formed predominantly from white over black and tempered with a gray wash.
In Yellow Amorphous (1950), the image and its spatial surroundings are painted with a subdued palette of chromatic yellow and ocher over gray and blue strewn with black pigment in a thick yet fairly smooth surface, resulting from a combination of squeezing, dragging, brushing, and pouring of thin and thick paint over the surface, hence creating a elegiac yet solemn atmosphere. The surface of Blue Amorphous # 4 (1962) is heavily rugged, filled with bold brush strokes and pugnacious scratched lines, generating a feeling of expressive aphasia.
Perhaps the most familiar paintings from the period of the late 1950s are Blue Scroll #2 (1958) and Shadow of the Unknown Bird (1955 – 58). In them, there is an intricate yet robust interplay between totemic forms that coexist with abstract shapes and symbolic images along with the elastic deployments of the grid, all painted with a full arsenal of painting treatments: from squeezing to brushing, troweling, staining, dragging, blotting, squeezing, outlining, and so on, all subject to revision. To me, they also invoke a monumental architectural presence: intermediates between façades of Romanesque cathedrals and tympana filled with relief sculptures and ornaments. In his distinct matrix of mosaic-like formations, the subtle differences in the vast networks of dots and points he undertakes in the following decade, as in Radiance #1 White (1967) and Radiance #3 (1968 – 69), present the experience of light and space. In contrast, Hieroglyph of Light (1966 – 67) and Soft Edges of Time (1976 – 82) pronounce his sculptural impulse. As Lucy Lippard astutely observed, “The mounds of pigment expand into mountains, and an inch of literal space becomes a binocular view from great height.”2 In confronting such an overwhelmingly tactile yet optical experience, I’ve come to realize the impulse to build up surfaces corresponds to his sculptural appetite: The mediation between two and three-dimensionality, as with the dialectic between the physical, the ethereal and the optical has always been a harmonious simultaneity. (The flat picture plane becomes deep and ambiguous and later optical. The color or, more precisely, the transformative nature of light is being generated from below and within the layering and surface density, which becomes a distinctive feature of Pousette-Dart’s material alchemy.)
“Richard Pousette-Dart approached works of art as points of departure rather than fixed destinations,”3 writes Charles Duncan in his catalogue essay for the show at Del Deo & Barzune. One would therefore imagine the restless spirit that perpetually seeks spiritual affirmation. In the case of these etchings, like other printmaking media meant to produce multiples in numbered editions, the artist treats each print as a singular work of art. Each print is the product of a particular sensory adaptation and visceral response to specific pictorial needs. The sixteen prints (measuring 8 × 10 inches) seem to be divided into four groups. The first may have begun with a traditional etching, as in View of Space (1979)—a lyrical, intimate environment filled with an expansive network of automatic lines densely etched in the negative space, creating a fluid pool of dissimilar swirling, curved, and light forms, suggesting abstract writing. In the second print Black Moving (1979), Pousette-Dart freely repeated the process with black paint, making the space at once more compressed and densely frontal. One can suppose that the artist developed qualities of intensity while producing Upon This Field (1979). The work became a fully realized painting with evenly distributed though irregular white mosaic over an asymmetrical black grid. The etched lines in the background are a provisional field of energy to extract from.
In the second group of four, Upon Moonspace [Master] and Blue Sonata (both 1980) were printed in a light green ink while Upon Moonspace III (1980) and Sensing the Center (1979) were printed in black. This group shares the consistent motif of an oval set within a rectangle. The third group, consisting of nine prints, is by far the most diverse and transporting. Just as one can identify the different densities of the controlled randomization of mark making in some, the spatial disparity that emanates from an unmistakable desire to experiment with the techniques of dripping is evidenced in others.
Arriving at the last group of nine prints (all measuring 17 7/8 × 23 13/16 inches), one may again assume that they were made with one single plate. The issues of light versus density, atmospheric versus compressed space, hot versus cold temperature, straight versus curved lines, and slow versus fast speeds of execution could not have been demonstrated more vigorously in each of these prints. The first print, Light Sublime (1979) is composed of numerous small, inconstant marks that populate the whole field of vision; each successive rendition (Galaxies of Being (1974), The Crystal Forest (1979 – 80), and Black and White Landscape (1979)) was lightly burnished to eliminate the etched lines. The dissimilar treatments of typography and surface as well as the “trancelike rhythmic motions” within an overall composition seem to have been obtained through the proficient balancing of line with mass and drawing with painting.
Lastly, whether or not the same plate was burnished again for the further offspring Jasmine Lights [Master], Center of Being IV, Angled Lights II, Where Are the Winds IV, and Night Voyager II (all 1979), one is surely aware of Pousette-Dart’s utter confidence in carrying out his democracy of touches. As he proclaimed while still a young artist, “no two snowflakes that ever fell are alike.”4 In his work, as Lowery Stokes Sims has pointed out, he was able to “manifest that combination of geometry and ‘free intuitive’ drawing,”5 yet, as a “transmitter of invisible energies” what finally speaks to the viewer today—twenty-four years after his death and more than a half century since he began this selection of paintings as well as the only group of etchings he ever made—is precisely the deliberate freedom he embraced through his fox-like temperament. His democracy of touches stems from the fact that, as he once wrote, “Great art leaves half the creation to the onlooker, gives the key to a creative experience. Draws the spectator into infinite mysteries.”6
- Roberta Smith, “A Little Abstract, a Little Eccentric, and More,” New York Times, August 17, 2007.
- Lippard, “In One Light,” quoted from Alex Bacon, “Richard Pousette-Dart’s Luminous Geometry” in Richard Pousette-Dart, Pace Gallery, 2015, 12.
- Charles Duncan, Altered States: The Etchings of Richard Pousette-Dart, Del Deo & Barzune, 2016, 5.
- “My Life in Brief” 1: September 4, 1937, Richard Pousette-Dart Papers: The Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation, quoted from Charles Duncan, “Rock, Paper, Brass: Richard Pousette-Dart in the 1930s” in Richard Pousette-Dart: 1930s, The Drawing Center, 2015, 13.
- Lowery Stokes Sims, “Richard Pousette-Dart’s Drawings in the 1930s: Context and Content” in Richard Pousette-Dart: 1930s, The Drawing Center, 2015, 31.
- Notebook B 176. As quoted in Sawin, “Richard Pousette-Dart,” 5.
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.