The Long Ride of Larry Poonsby John Zinsser
Larry Poons is famous for having been famous young. The painter, who has just shown ambitious new work at Jacobson Howard in Manhattan and Sideshow in Brooklyn, had his first solo show in 1963 at age 26 at Richard Bellamy’s legendary Green Gallery. His signature geometric “dot” paintings were a highlight of MoMA’s 1965 op art survey, “The Responsive Eye.” By 1967, he was showing at Leo Castelli, alongside Dan Flavin, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein.
I have been aware of Poons since childhood. One of the few pieces of contemporary art that my parents owned was a Poons print, an elegant black-and-white arrangement of dots and ellipses set inside a pale rectilinear grid. (I had grown up thinking that this was what art “looked like.”) And the oddly magical name, “Poons,” always stuck with me.
The painter Carl Ostendarp introduced me to Poons’ later series of “poured” works. In 1987, Ostendarp was making thick, vertically oriented obdurate foam paintings, influenced by Poons (another favorite of his at the time was musician Ozzy Osbourne). So I made a pilgrimage uptown to the André Emmerich Gallery to see a show by “Lawrence” Poons, as the gallery was then calling him. Despite the tasteful carpeted floors and the gold strip frames on the works, the paintings were brash and unruly: radical in their material insistency. Room after room was filled with large-scale, paint-laden mucus-green canvases. Rivulets of hardened liquid acrylic color formed over dry masses of foam rubber and other synthetic “accretions.” The readings ranged from lyrical to toxic. The attitude in the work was a far cry from the crisply cerebral abstractions of Philip Taaffe, David Reed, and Gary Stephan that were being celebrated downtown at the time.
Poons’ 1981 mid-career survey at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, curated by Kenworth Moffett, contained the first cycle of post-dot “elephant skin” paintings, influenced by Jules Olitski’s pouring and staining techniques of the late 1960s. It included the epic 1971 “Railroad Horse” (measuring in at a whopping 94×303 inches), a sweeping wash of vertical pink striations, highlighted by explosions of light blue and acid orange. The painter Frank Stella wrote about this work in his 1999 essay, “Larry Poons: Mr. Natural”:
There was every reason to believe that “Railroad Horse” would set painting on course for the 70s. It was certainly the most impressive painting to make its debut in 1971. It was an elegant fusion of abstract expression and color field painting. It was a forward looking attempt to put the best 50s and 60s painting into play. It had, seemingly, everything going for it: size, scope, purpose, originality, and the ability to carry a kind of compelling conviction about the importance of art making. What it didn’t have was an easily discernable image.
In a popular sense, the painting had been a spectacular failure. And it was fitting that its swan song was in Boston. Poons had gone to college in Boston in the 1950s at the New England Conservatory of Music, to study composition, but found himself shifting to painting (he ended up playing “cowboy” music and enrolling in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts).
Moving to New York in 1958, Poons wrote to Barnett Newman, having found his address in a Newsweek article. They became friends—and Newman encouraged the artist’s father to let him pursue a career as an artist. It was a heady time, as Poons befriended Ray Johnson and Frank Stella. He learned about acrylic paint from Agnes Martin. He started a café on Bleeker Street called Epitome, where Jack Kerouac, Ray Brimser and Gregory Corso read their poetry. Always a luminary on the downtown scene, Poons later became a fixture at Max’s Kansas City. He was also a friend of Bob Dylan, whose Rolling Thunder Revue practiced for their tour in his loft.
Eventually, moving from Castelli’s downtown gallery uptown to Lawrence Rubin, then Knoedler, then Emmerich, Poons became an anointed member of critic Clement Greenberg’s color field painting royalty—alongside Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland. But art world favor turned against him. Arts magazine’s James Monte wrote in 1979, “In less than ten years Poons went from being a culture hero to a heretic.”
Intrigued by this mythology, I arranged to visit the then-hermetic artist in July of 1989, at his out-of-town hideaway in East Durham, N.Y to interview him for Journal of Contemporary Art. Getting off the train at Hudson, I was met by a small, wiry, intense man. He escorted me across the parking lot to an enormous hulking mint julep-colored Lincoln Continental. Driving carefully, his gaze fixed firmly ahead, Poons talked excitedly. Like the Ken Kesey of the 1960s, he displayed a clear-eyed optimism and unbridled enthusiasm, while I worried that he was wasting all of his best interview material. His house, tucked at the end of a hidden road, had been a bootlegger’s lair and the barn behind it was his studio.
There, we sat on overturned paint buckets, surrounded by stained plastic sheeting stapled to the wooden beams. This was the vestige of one of Poons’ painting sessions on a single “roll” of canvas, surrounding himself in a room-like environment, to be “cropped” later. In the ensuing interview Poons’ verbal discourse on art was abrasive and confrontational, tinged with a sense of impatience and higher purpose. His choice quotes from that afternoon had been: “The dot pictures were my best attempt to learn how to paint.” “It’s just not true that I’ve ever been involved in control—whether for or against.” “What you think you can’t do is what you already should be doing.”
The rest of the barn was crowded with automotive and motorcycle parts. (Lore has it that Poons blew the proceeds from his early Guggenheim grant on a Lamborghini.) At that time, he had embarked on a career in motorcycle racing, piloting a vintage British single-cylinder big-bore café racer in a historic class. This activity has continued to this day, with Poons driving cross-country, gypsy-like, with little crew or sponsorship, to such large venues as Daytona. To date, he has won the national title in his division four times.
I returned to New York, with my head reeling. One of my then-mentors, Ross Bleckner, gently admonished me for making such an outré journey to the outer limits of acceptability. But when I think of Poons’ later work now, I think of how large his influence has actually been. Consider this list of painters who have adopted some aspect of his formalist and procedural methods: Gerhard Richter abstracts (a sense of intense materiality and inclusion of every available color); Pat Steir (waterfalls); John Armleder (pour paintings, found paint); Jacqueline Humphries (running stains); Joseph Marioni (the picture plane as a site of vertical gravitational veracity); Carroll Dunham (foam ball paintings).
Which brings us to the recent shows at hand. Occupying two floors at Jacobson Howard and the whole of the newly expanded space at Sideshow, Poons debuted works with a new leaner look. Made traditionally, that is to say, with paintbrushes, Sideshow’s central painting “20,000 Miles To Gram Parsons,” (2003) is a large horizontal work on exposed unprimed canvas. Paint is applied in loose gestural lines, clotting together into menacing knots in places, stretching thin into drybrush passages elsewhere. The palette is light: an iridescent purple impasto is played against a soaked-in burnt orange wash. Blues, pinks and greens make for a larger plein air sense of landscape light. Seen from a distance, mountain-like triangular pyramidal masses emerge from the dissonant surface. While the more recent “Swanno Mountain 314 #2,” (2005) has a light blue background, which creates a sense of atmospheric space behind the sketched-in pink and purple blocky architectural forms in the foreground.
For historical cross-reference, two older works were also included at the Brooklyn venue. In the front room, “Selena,” (1991) a large-scale pink acrylic work, incorporates foam sculptural undersupport. In the back room, “Untitled,” (1968) a vintage “dot” painting, consists of elongated ellipses—orange, light green, yellow, light blue, off-white—descending through a ghostly penciled grid on unprimed cotton duck.
Poons was at the Sideshow opening on Bedford Avenue, coiled against the wall under a large cowboy hat. Hipsters from various generations milled about, oblivious to each other’s identities. Poons told me that he liked being a small man in a large crowd, that he felt like he was “hiding.” But the twinkle in his eye told me otherwise. He was back, as ever, in the scene.
Zinsser is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn.