LUHRING AUGUSTINE GALLERY | OCTOBER 28 – DECEMBER 17, 2011
There was a peculiar and unexpected aura on Saturday afternoon upon entering the Luhring Augustine Gallery in West Chelsea. I encountered a wall sculpture made of coiled steel wire, mounted on a simple wooden frame, and hung on the front wall as one entered the premises. I had come to see a selection of early paintings and sculptures by Richard Pousette-Dart from the late 1940s and early ’50s; so what was this tension-filled wire piece doing in the gallery? I took another hard look at it, and suddenly it became clear that Pousette-Dart’s energetically constructed forms were literally wound into this painterly space. The work, “Untitled (The Web),” dated 1950, read like a harbinger, an unknown hieroglyphic code, or a hidden treasure created on the outskirts of the gallery scene in lower Manhattan at that time. I could not avoid thinking that 1950 was a rather exceptional year, as discussed some years earlier by art historian April Kingsley. It was a turning point that defined the importance of Abstract Expressionism. Among other significant works produced by various artists that year, Pollock painted four of his greatest works and Barnett Newman completed his monumental “Vir Heroicus Sublimis.”
Instead of large-scale paintings like these, Pousette-Dart showed that tactile resonance in painting and sculpture could retain a viable and intimate appeal, and that works of abstract art could be made more humbly, not always requiring extravagant pigment or extended bolts of linen to prove significant. This remarkable quality became evident as I moved from one painting to the next, spaced between a selection of densely linear sculptures (I cite the extraordinary, though simple black and white paintings, such as “59th Street Ramp” (1947), “Dragon Head” (1948-50), and “Cloud Sign” (1950)). In each case, Pousette-Dart experiments with pours and spills, with calligraphy and gesture, with saturation of pigment, and with the power of metamorphosis and symbolic mythic forms. Other paintings employ color relationships and overlays, accompanied by linear striations, as in “Angel Forms” (1952–53) and “Sea Birth” (1950). Both suggest marine-life organisms asserting their presence yet engulfed in deep memory, like an ancient source of ecriture. “Bridge Horizon” (1950) illuminates the space like torchlight in a cavern, as does the liberated magic of “Byzantine Door” (1950–52).
By the early 1950s, Richard Pousette-Dart was an accomplished painter, and was ready to move into his signature, thickly impastoed, large-scale “murals,” which he had been obliged to defer at the outset of his career. In order for this to change, Pousette-Dart was compelled to leave his East River studio and move upstate to the country. Isolating himself from his colleagues, he found a less expensive, more focused environment for his work to evolve. In this sense, his flight was a precursor to Pollock and de Kooning who would eventually make similar departures from the existential angst of 1950s New York. It is questionable, however, whether either of these artists possessed the quality of self-containment shown by Pousette-Dart. Despite his remarkable achievements as a painter, including laudatory exhibitions and awards achieved during his lifetime, it would take time for Pousette-Dart to gain the attention he truly deserved. The magnet of that recognition vibrates consistently in the works shown throughout this exhibition. In fact, the work accomplished at the East River studio set the stage for everything to follow, but for that to happen, the artist had to relinquish something. He had to make a departure in order to find his way.
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.