Richard Pousette-Dart’s "Mythic Heads and Forms," abstract paintings which span the decade of the 1930s, with their elliptical organization of thick black lines that forcefully yet almost imperceptibly shift space, have an immediate impact, in the sense of both sureness and conviction. While these works have the look of the thirties, with biomorphic forms and weight through built up surfaces, I sensed that their presence on the New York scene had contributed to the prevalent ambitions of abstract American artists. Striving to encompass and move forward from Picasso, Miro, Klee, or Kandinsky, they approached the "world of objects," to unlock hermetic harmonies of the unconscious and of primitive art from sources as diverse as Northwest American Indian art, Byzantine icons, and Oceanic and African art.
These works, painted during his twenties, were exhibited together in 1941 at the Artist’s Gallery, a non-profit space sponsored by Meyer Schapiro and James Johnson Sweeney. Pousette-Dart was a precocious artist. Having grown up in St. Louis, he was immersed in the milieu of his painter father, and the poetry and theosophical ideas of his mother. By the forties, Pousette-Dart was ready to spring as part of the modernist canon— think of his inclusion in the famous photo of the Irascibles, alongside Pollock, de Kooning, Newman, Gottlieb, and Reinhardt. But Pousette-Dart’s studio work led him to conclusions that both bound and distinguished his mature style from that of his peers. As John Yau succinctly states in the catalogue essay, they all strove "for an impersonal truth" and the dissolving of the "I" into a larger stream of consciousness. Yet Pousette-Dart celebrated a state of endless luminosity and variety within nature’s fecundity, against the backdrop of Pollock’s gestural drips or Reinhahardt’s "ultimate" painting.
From his writings, we know that he thought a great deal about nature as a "principle of creation refracted against human experience." He personified it through such abstract forms as lines which he described as "perfect edges of god thrilling all selves." His thinking on symbolism could be expressed thus: "…a place where silence moves without motion… and the epitome of nature/real as every weed, tree man and flower." These notes begin to articulate the qualitative distinctions he made about the conjunction of line and symbol, which drive his mythical portraits of the Greek gods— "Persephone," "Zeus," or "Flora," or the complex and varied "Bird Woman," all of which are in the current show. And they begin to define the later luminous pointillist-geometric works of his mature oeuvre.
Like an early Greek thinker, Pousette-Dart’s idealism was informed by a materialist belief that the substances of nature’s endless changes are unified by an originally powerful form. By the time I left the gallery I felt charged with an aliveness—a belly full of something intangible, yet real.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.