Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum August 17-September 25, 2007
Death has many children, and there are Giants in the marshes still. You may not see them, perhaps—but they are there, and the only bulwark of safety is in a land of patient, faithful hearts.
– Bram Stoker, “The Invisible Giant”
Richard Pousette-Dart was a survivor from a generation of painters ill-fated by early death and suicide, those children of the Atomic Age deemed the “Irascibles” (immortalized in Nina Leen’s photograph). Born in 1916 in St. Paul, Minnesota, he was one of the last giants of the New York School to pass, at age 76, in 1992.
He dwelled mostly outside popular consciousness, an invisible giant since the 1950s, because in 1951, the same year that Leen’s famous photograph was published in Life magazine, the very moment that this group of young Americans were skyrocketing to international recognition, Pousette-Dart walked away from it all. He slipped away to the wilderness with his wife, the poet Evelyn Gracey Pousette-Dart, and proceeded to start a family and make the paintings, photographs, and drawings that would consume him until his death. It’s a rare and unclassifiable breed of work, laden with curiosity and transformation, moving far beyond Abstract Expressionism into new and ever-changing compositional structures, atonal chromatic lineups, and dense material buildups; a headstrong and far-reaching practice that continues to lie at the fringes of our understanding.
The 50-year survey of his work currently at the Guggenheim, consisting of only 48 pieces, barely begins to touch on the breadth of this output. Still, it’s a stunning show, and all we’ve got for the time being (the exhibition moves to Switzerland in October). It begins with a handful of early works that run a surefire gamut from European modernism to the multifarious systems of form and structure found in Native American and Oceanic art. Projected through Pousette-Dart’s keen lens, these mixed systems of the old world and the new create salient, arresting pictures like “Bird Woman” from 1939-40 or “Untitled (Flora)” from the same years, whose asymmetrical complexities reward extended viewing despite the artist’s relative youthfulness.
By the 1940’s Pousette-Dart sheds the skin of his earlier accomplishments and emerges armed with dark and brutal abstractions, foretokens of a radical new direction. These are highly tactile canvases (something the artist would return to again and again in different ways) that have been scrapped, slashed, built and layered to reveal quaking spasmodic visions. “La Musique de la Nuit” from 1941 is raw and uncouth, with sand mixed into the surface of oil paint, a surface that reveals vestigial surfaces beneath, slight glimpses into lost skeins of articulation. It is “Crucifixion, Comprehension of the Atom” from 1944 and “The Atom. One World” from 1947-48 however, that truly resonate of the period. Jarring and dense, they draw us toward their totemic symbols into an atmosphere where control is waylaid, where crucifixions and mushroom clouds no longer hold to their intended significations; transforming into open metaphoric systems of commutation, their shadowy, shifting meanings float across the surface of our minds like an oily mist.
As the early 1950s arrive, we find Pousette-Dart emerging from this dark veil into a bleached world of whiteness and delicately sharp, rhythmic scratching. There is a numbness to these pictures, like intense light seen anew through dilated and slightly painful, fragile eyes. The surfaces are washy and pallid, with a cadence of whitened orbs and shifting shapes, as in the dull visual hum of “White Sound” from 1950-52. “The Web” from 1950, is the most queer of this group. A coppery, metallic skin stretched across a surface and nailed to the face of its support, like the hide of some unseen thing hung out to dry; the slightest movement on the part of the viewer reveals new spaces and reflections. Nothing is stable in these blanched meditations; the scratches and patchy whiteness across this skin change before our eyes.
By the 1960s we find Pousette-Dart matured and eccentrically precise. These strange paintings carry a life and wooly energy all their own. A trio of small paintings hung together, “Blue Intaglio” from 1983, “Golden Presence” from 1975, and “Starry Space” from 1961; although separated by three decades, these works feel as if they could have been completed in the same session. They each contain simple, singular geometric forms–rectangle, square and circle. The forms seem to grow out of their selves, like an electric mold. Changing and mutating tendrils of paint slither from the surface—thick, multicolored dollops that create a visual static Pousette-Dart will retain throughout his life. These hypnotically inert, wavering creatures both repel and beckon our attention. The rectangle within a rectangle of “Golden Presence” is so energetically particular that it warps the frame’s attempts to retrain its edges–a beguiling, ogling abstraction, off-putting in its humorous deformity.
“Night Landscape” of 1969-71, a ridiculously profound cover of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” winks and blinks before your eyes. It’s a twisting, knotty visual melody that comes charging out of the gate with scarcely enough time for viewers to feel whether they are being charmed or mocked, or if this thing is the result of composition or improvisation. We are left reeling, and reminded that there’s hilarity and elation to be found in these remote places.
There are thin veils of glowing colors, like a cataract over the sun, silencing strange forms of shape and script in “Hieroglyph #4” (1973-74). It’s a fine example of Pousette-Dart’s diverse sensibilities, a rare insistence on subtlety and space, a chromatic contrapuntal arpeggio of mode and interval, coloring in the space within the space of primary color that runs up and down the surface of scalar logic.
We’re left to grapple with two very different articulations of Pousette-Dart’s most challenging proposition, the orb in-and-as space: “Now a Turning Orb” (1987-90) and the sadly solitary circular canvas (he completed several in his lifetime), “Lost in the Beginnings of Infinity” (1991), completed a year before his death. In the former we’re given the orb as radiating black mass, both a presence and absence that hovers over and within a dull text-like, map-like ground. There is a menacing emptiness to this form, which in earlier paintings was luminous with activity. It feels like an emptiness wrought of doom and wonder, a place outside hope and fear.
The latter is a truly difficult painting that stretches our understanding of pictorial space, and our location within it, nearly to the breaking point. There is no fixed position within its circular ground, so we are left hovering in suspended confusion. It’s an unsettling image, a portal before which the mind tumbles, and we feel the sorrow of dumbness–and though it seems to speak, one is not able to understand.
It can’t be stressed enough how utterly original and idiosyncratic these canvases are. At a time when the remaining cohorts of his generation were arguing over the purity and flatness of surfaces in the hallowed halls of the academy, breeding second and third generation expressionists, Pousette-Dart was in the throes of a completely impure and original output: synthesizing and mutating forms and influences into an organized chaos unique to painting. Where Pollock and de Kooning were trying to tear down painting from the inside out in order to discover what it really counted for, Pousette-Dart was quietly creating his own optically polyphonic revolution, one that proved to be highly generative throughout his lifetime, and largely overlooked. No matter, the restless bravery he employed throughout his life’s work is as revelatory now as it was then.
Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.