At the Speed of Light:
Larry Poons Paintings of the 1960s
The brightly colored, hard-edge dots and lozenge shapes that Larry Poons painted in the early 1960s, against expansive, monochrome grounds of contrasting tones, appear to dance on the surface, flicker and bounce, in primal rhythmic beats. It was a novel optical effect that Poons created by combining the lessons of Jackson Pollock’s pulsating allover fields with Mondrian’s soulful “Boogie Woogie” geometric compositions. Quickly establishing a distinct compositional and color sensibility, which was (and remains in his work today) aggressive and emphatic, Poons’s paintings were regarded as both visually riveting intellectually challenging. Quite unlike anything seen before, Poons’s works of the 1960s proposed a new direction for abstract painting.
Born in Tokyo, of American parents, in 1937, Poons relocated with the family to the U.S. He studied for a time at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. While his ambitions might have been to become the next Beethoven, Poons gravitated more toward Hank Williams and country music songs. (He still plays the guitar or piano on occasion.) While in music school, he discovered a greater propensity for visual art, and soon transferred to the Art School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His art studies there were short-lived, however, mainly because his passion for Mondrian’s Neoplastic painting, and also the work of Stuart Davis, was dismissed by his peers and made him feel ostracized. Poons’s early compositions of rectangles, diamonds, and other geometric shapes, went against the grain of prevailing tastes at the school, which favored various forms of late Abstraction Expressionism, in vogue around the world by the mid-1950s.
Eventually, in the late 1950s, the bohemian life of New York City beckoned. In partnership with painter friends Howard Smythe and Don McAree, Poons ran a coffee shop, the Epitome, on Bleecker Street, which became a favorite watering hole for Beat Generation artists and writers, including prominent figures like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Poons briefly audited a music composition course taught by John Cage at the New School for Social Research. By the time he began showing his art, he was already fairly well-known in the art scene. He befriended Fluxus artists, such as Dick Higgins and Al Hansen, musician La Monte Young, and dancer Lucinda Childs. Barnett Newman became a kind of mentor, Frank Stella, a close friend. Agnes Martin taught Poons how to use acrylic paints, and artist Ray Johnson was instrumental in encouraging Poons to pursue his “Dot” paintings.
His first big break came in 1962, when dealer Richard Bellamy, with the support of his backer, collector Robert Scull, invited Poons to show his work at the nascent Green Gallery. While the artist was still in his mid twenties, his exhibition of “Dot” canvases, such as The Enforcer (1962) and Lee’s Retreat (1963), at Green Gallery in Midtown, New York, caused a stir. He débuted there in a 1962 group exhibition, followed by three annual solo shows before the gallery closed. Poons eventually relocated to Leo Castelli Gallery, presenting a solo exhibition there in 1967.
In her recent book Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, Judith E. Stein evokes the Green Gallery shows and the fertile artistic milieu that surrounded them. It was an intense, heady time, but short-lived, as the scene changed rapidly by the mid-1960s, with the advent of Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptual art. At first, the climate of the New York avant-garde scene of the early 1960s was inclusive. In the Stein book, Poons is quoted as saying, “We were all there together. There weren’t any distinctions made between the abstractness of say Stella, Lichtenstein or Warhol. Nobody was drawing any lines [. . .] everything existed together on the same wall, and it was fine.”
In the later 1960s, however, as the nation headed toward political turmoil, the art scene, too, grew more fractured. By 1967, Poons had turned away from the hard-edge compositions that established his career, after producing only approximately forty-four of these works. The change in his output was prompted to a certain degree by the growing misrepresentation of the “Dot” pictures by critics and curators who associated them with Op art, a genre that did not particularly interest Poons. His ambitions for paintings were far greater. The lozenge shapes became softer, more ethereal, like amoebas viewed under a microscope; the forms now seemed to quiver against vast, macrocosmic color fields. Eventually, the dots and lozenges disappeared altogether. Another major breakthrough for him came with the landmark, mural-scale 1971 painting Railroad Horse (now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), featuring cascades of vibrant, poured pigment, Poons then came to be regarded as one of the foremost Color Field painters.
Still creating vital abstract works today, full of visual and textual nuance, Poons has not slowed down. As a motorcycle enthusiast, and a champion driver, he retains as well a love of high-speed racing. Just about to take off on another cross-country road trip, Poons recently shared with me in a phone conversation some thoughts about the early days, the Green Gallery, and the advent of his extraordinary career.
David Ebony (Rail): Can you comment on the early part of your career, and how you started showing your work?
Larry Poons: People living in or around Coenties Slip, on Pearl Street, where I was living at the time, would come by and look at the work I was doing. There was Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Al Hansen, and Jim Rosenquist, too, I think. I was friends with Henry Geldzahler around that time. I asked him about the painting, and he said “keep it simple,” and that was good advice. Ray Johnson came by the studio one day and saw some of the “Dot” paintings I was working on. He really focused on those—don’t want to say he was excited by them, exactly—but he talked about them. Cripple Creek (1962) was the first one.
Rail: And you first showed your work at the Green Gallery?
Poons: It was earlier, during my coffee shop days. I sometimes hung a few paintings in the coffee shop, and some people noticed them. People from the Camino Gallery on 10th Street—it was a husband and wife team who ran the place—asked me if I wanted to be in a group show at the gallery, and so I gave them a painting. It was the first time I showed my work in a New York gallery. People began to talk about the paintings then. At least, I got noticed as a painter at that time.
Rail: How did you meet Richard Bellamy?
Poons: Dick came down to the studio to take a look when I was working on the first “Dot” paintings. I don’t think I’d ever met him before. He came down with Bob Scull, who I definitely never met before. They seemed to want to show the work.
Rail: Had you visited the Green Gallery before that?
Poons: No. I had heard about it, but hadn’t been there until I started showing there—first in a group show and then in a few solo shows until the gallery closed.
Rail: Were they all successful?
Poons: I guess so. He would sell maybe four or five paintings from each of the shows.
Rail: Did you get along well with Bellamy?
Poons: We liked each other; we’d drink together. It was a good time. There was not a heck of a lot of talking going on.
Rail: What was the atmosphere like in those days? How would you describe the ambiance, the scene?
Poons: We were all kicked up into the air, if you catch my metaphor—we all had our feet off the ground to the extent that nobody knew what was really happening. Except for showing your work, selling a painting or two, we were not exactly grounded in anything specific. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t say it was exactly blissful, and not exciting in a familiar way. It was delightfully fucked up. Things were not organized in a business sense or in a commodity sense. It was nice.
DAVID EBONY is a contributing editor of Art in America. He is also the author of monthly columns for Yale University Press online, and Artnet News.