In the lead-up to Larry Poons’s exhibition Momentum at Yares Gallery, David Rhodes paid a visit to the painter at the studio he has occupied on Broadway, just south of Union Square, since 1975. The exhibition presents eight new paintings and six key paintings from Poons’s career, which now extends into its sixth decade. After first attracting attention and success with his dot paintings, exhibited in 1963 at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery, Poons has continued to evolve stylistically directly through the process of making paintings.
David Rhodes (Rail): We spoke about musicality and painting during our phone call to arrange this conversation, and something you said really stuck with me; you said, “Everything is rhythm—everything.” You mean music, literature, painting, and dance—everything, as you said?
Larry Poons: Sounds or words have that quality of being rhythm. Even when used randomly, you can randomly say words, and there is, so to speak, an inherent rhythm. Words will have that quality by being words and being used as words. I’m not saying a pattern—that would be incidental or accidental.
Rail: That is a difference; rhythm and pattern are not the same. Rhythm can exist without necessarily having to become pattern.
Poons: A rhythm is simply the distance between here and here. A dancer moves a finger from one place to another; that’s rhythm. Whether you notice it or not, to move intrinsically—it’s rhythm to be alive. Or not. Even a piece of chemistry moves, responds to conditions. You don’t need to say rhythm needs to be conscious; it’s just a word for everything. You can think of it that way.
Rail: This puts me in mind of Johannes Kepler’s discoveries; since at least the Greeks, music was conceived of as having an arithmetical basis, and it was a reflection of this. Kepler said that music was about motion, as nothing was in a static relation—deriving this view from his astrological observations about the movement of planets. Bach was influenced by this scientific discovery in turn. Now, music was a number of voices or points of view, parts that relate as they move—so a revolution both in science, astrology, and music; counterpoint and fugue. In 1782 Mozart participated in a salon in Vienna and, blown away by Bach’s new musical structures, converted one of Bach’s fugues to a quartet for strings. So that they—Haydn was also present—could understand what was going on.
Poons: So that they could just get exposed to it. That exposure is the understanding to someone whose ears worked—and Mozart’s ears worked. Like Cézanne’s eyes also worked!
Rail: The realization and reaction to something different going on is the same historically in visual art as in music?
Poons: It’s possible to understand it and say on a superficial level, “now we’ve gone by this.” Like a philosophical position that you could study in a class of aesthetics—but that’s not what we’re talking about. That’s not what I’m interested in. I’ve never seen it that way. I see no inherent difference listening to special things like listening to Hank Williams or listening to Brahms. They are both good! I can’t tell you why. There is no why—if there was, we could all learn how to do it.
Rail: Yes, we are not going to—that’s not a possibility.
Poons: But some people think that it is. They say, “look, here are the reasons, here is my art, here is my paper, and I’ll explain it to you.”
Rail: Sure, that’s only an attempt at explanation; it’s not a substitute for what’s there.
Poons: And that’s legitimate. It’s possible to teach people how to write this kind of thing about things. But it’s only your senses that can ever determine—it’s senses before words.
Rail: Would you say the artist follows the painting in a kind of back and forth?
Poons: Painting is nothing but color. There’s nothing else—that’s all there is in painting. There are things that look like paintings, but they’re not. They can be a kind of propaganda—posters, illustrations, this that and the other thing—which can be wonderful. But they’re not the same; they’re different from Cézanne or Pollock. Something that’s not even any good—how do you make that real? You put a price on it and then market it and have success—then it can be bargained and sold. There is nothing wrong or corrupt about that because you can do the same thing with something that’s good, and people do—everyone’s got to live. It’s like Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” So shut up. Which is what everybody knows and thinks, but then, not everybody hears the same thing. What can make a difference is the placebo effect; say it’s good and “oh yeah, it looks better.”
Rail: From the ‘70s through the ‘90s what was called Formalism was particularly denigrated; perceptions of what constituted, say, “a good painting,” were very conflicted.
Poons: Well, what do you call good painting? I’ve often said that I’ve never seen a bad painting that wasn’t well painted. People think if it’s well painted it’s good.
Rail: de Kooning said that he was the only one who could make a bad de Kooning. Many artists could make a “good” de Kooning.
Poons: I guess that he’s saying the same thing. A painting that’s a failure has nothing to do with a painting that’s well or badly painted. Someone said to Brahms that they could hear some Haydn in a piece that he had just premiered, and Brahms replied that any jackass could hear that—which is really to the point of what is not understood. Any jackass can see that’s a fucking soup can. And what else?
Rail: Exactly, but also—what else!
Poons: What else? It’s the same situation. Any jackass can say, “that’s blue,” looking at Barnett Newman’s Cathedra.
Rail: What happens when an artist changes the way they make a painting, when style is seen to change?
Poons: You don’t change the way you make a painting—it changes you and the way you do it, and you may not even know it.
Poons: It’s just happening, and you can only think in those terms retrospectively. Looking back, without ambition this doesn’t happen. Ambition doesn’t mean showing your work. Ambition is to be—as good as. To make sculpture—not to look like David [Smith] or Donatello, but to be that good. If you want to be a writer, you want to be as good as Proust. That is what has propelled you into it— somehow you tripped over it, and it meant something to you. “This feels like that thing I read,” you know, “I’m able to do it.” That’s where it comes from, and it’s not a willful thing, you can’t do it any differently even if you want to. That doesn’t change if you say, “I’m going to be a whore now,” and you can still make great paintings.
How do you think Tiziano felt about this when it came to his paintings? This was a system where the Jesuits or the Pope picked you out of a group because you could do it. They then threw commissions at you—“I want a picture of my new baby, wife, dog,”—so that’s what you give them, right? if you were Rubens or Velázquez. Velázquez was like the Henry Kissinger of his time, an ambassador for the great court of Spain, he was a no-fuck-around kind of person. He would give them what they wanted, he’d paint them and where they weren’t looking, you know—like what’s underneath the table, the little cat down there—they’d just go nuts. I mean look at that—awesome.
They paint all over the place, but not out front, there it’s how it’s supposed to be: a man on a horse with armor on, right. The armor shines, the colors are there, but below look around the horses legs and the rocks. You see what people even at that time didn’t see because they were looking at what was pictured—my wife or mistress, all the proper shit. But when they are left to their own devices… like in Ruben’s rainbow landscapes—paintings that he did only for himself. I think there are four or five of them—unbelievable paintings. They look like Pollocks, the way he painted the trees, the ducks. Or look at Rembrandt again, doing little flicks of color like that. They’re just getting the color in there, you know. They had to do their commissions. Nothing bad about that, but without this framework we would have had Pollock in 1750.
Rail: That’s something to think about!
Poons: You understand, without the rigidity of what a painting is supposed to look like, it took a long time—until the 20th Century almost—when Cézanne would just do color. Everyone painted landscapes, why didn’t his look like everyone else’s?
Rail: That’s a good question.
Poons: But they don’t. Like El Greco too—how did he get away with it? When you look at those things, people must have been so cracked out during the Inquisition. The envelope in which he operated—it was alright to be scary and weird—sinister or maybe not, you know. The stop motion that goes into his paintings—they suddenly jerk at you, even though you know they don’t move—but they do. They move.
Rail: Yes, that’s very true.
Poons: Which he had no control over even if he realized this was happening.It’s like Haydn saying about Beethoven, when he was a student of Beethoven, “Oh he couldn’t write anything in decent style.” He wasn’t joking—he was serious. Beethoven wasn’t capable of it; it wasn’t above him or below him. So, you get your Van Gogh, or Cézanne, or Pollock. They did what they could do. This is the way you make music or art—doing what you can do—and it will change anyway. If you can’t do it, it won’t change from the moment you started doing it.
Rail: This brings to mind the changes in your own work over your career.
Poons: Say you start out in politics and find something that works—you keep doing it. This works in law enforcement, in business, but that’s not literature. Well it’s a literature but not Sophocles or Melville. What hastened me—not hastened—reinforced what I knew I felt with that show Bill Seitz put up in 1965, The Responsive Eye. The association for me wasn’t Op Art. It was Beethoven, Barnett Newman, Mondrian. That’s where I want to be, maybe not yet, but that’s what I want. Brahms wanted to be what Beethoven was—a composer! Haydn couldn’t be another Beethoven. That’s the point. Beethoven didn’t come up with an idea to be different. He didn’t come up with a Jeff Koons idea—to be different, and that’s it.
Rail: The music itself—the compositional structures—was the idea.
Poons: It’s the involvement, the sameness of the work and the person when the work is being done. Someone asked Richard Feynman, the physicist, where, if he was able to travel the world lecturing, he would like to work. He said: “the kitchen table.” The truth. Where does someone like to paint? Where the color is, in the studio. Do you need this and that—will it make you happier? Whoever said being a painter or writer would make you happier? Where’s the promise there? It’s like a calling.
Rail: Music is the most direct in terms of reception. Visual art gets more than its fair share of requests for explanation. Either way, when something arrives that is different, it’s often difficult to grasp what it is immediately, or even after a considerable time.
Poons: I didn’t appreciate Pollock and a lot of that stuff for a long time after I started painting. And I discovered how good Cézanne looks within the last twenty five to thirty years. Through painting I discovered things I’d never been able to see before, things that went right by me. What I didn’t know was that it all began for me with Mondrian, because I felt that I could do that. I couldn’t draw. I was attracted to not having to draw and to instead place things to make a relationship. In my mind, I realized that that was drawing—I wasn’t lost. I didn’t have to know where the placement of the dots had to be because I had an idea of order, give or take, but it didn’t look that way. The dots looked the way they did, or do, and that was what got me to Barnett Newman. The whole painting could move the way Newman moves. And also Frank Stella’s painting at that time.
Rail: What paintings were they?
Poons: The black paintings.
Rail: I thought so. Fantastic paintings! They get categorized as proto-Minimalist or anti-paintings, but aren’t they just as emotional or intellectual as the Abstract Expressionist painting before them, however different they are?
Poons: Of course. And they weren’t planned—they just happened. They are paintings—that’s all. The only thing that makes a painting good or bad is color. It’s like music is just sound or rhythm—put it that way.
Rail: Thinking ahead to the upcoming show at Yares, the new paintings from 2017 are made largely with a brush, which is just another means to an end, like pouring or throwing paint.
Poons: Yeah, a bucket is a brush.
Rail: Using a brush is a choice for putting on the paint.
Poons: No, not a choice. I knew I could do it; I didn’t have to cut out the foam anymore. They still don’t look like anyone else’s paintings.
Rail: I agree
Poons: You don’t try something else—it’s all doing, no trying. When you buy clothes, you try them, ok, but in painting there is only doing. There are no rules, never have been. That doesn’t mean it’s freewheeling—painting has its own physics. And the physics reside in the human brain. When you confront the color the physics is there. Even if you are stone deaf, and you look at a sheet of music, you can hear it. You can say, “it’s rough here,” if you are a musician and deaf. Beethoven, Bach, they didn’t have to try it on a piano; they knew what it sounded like.
Rail: Going back to Kepler, what we see and hear—as art is a motion, a rhythm that communicates humanness…
Poons: It’s only for humans. What have we ever run into that cares for any of this except other humans? We are the only ones in the universe with any kind of rapport with this. Art is for human beings, and that’s where it comes from. From the beginning of the species we’ve been afraid, terrified. Hunting, being killed—from the beginning—this is the human experience, and we have the same brain cortex. Early humans made fires to keep the animals away. The flickering light on the wall of the cave probably suggested an animal moving—like a movie—before anyone drew them. They saw shapes in the rock, and then they put their own shapes there that were the next thing. They’re knocking rocks together, yelling and making sounds—there are overtones—music. We’ve got painting, music, and the things that we’re frightened of, the things that we don’t know—what happens when we die? The basic fear—what happens next? We don’t know.
Rail: That hasn’t changed, has it?
Poons: No, it hasn’t. That’s why it is still around—painting, music—because it hasn’t changed.
Rail: And some works, on a much shorter timeline, stay interesting and relevant whilst others seem to fade away.
Poons: Kerouac’s book On The Road (1957)—it has legs; I reread it a couple of years ago; that book is going to be around—it’s good! Not just because of the scene, and it was popular, but because it’s good. He’s one of the writers. It’s like Huck Finn: important literature. Like Hemmingway or Eliot, that stays around. The book is not like it was when I first read it—it’s better now. Because it works.
Rail: At the time it was published in 1957 it was very connected to specific events of that time, in that scene.
Rail: And you knew Kerouac at that time.
Poons: Oh yeah, I used to have a coffee shop on Bleecker Street—three of us partnered up. Ginsberg and Corso and Ray Bremser, Jack Micheline, all these people used to come in all the time and read poetry—and Jack Kerouac was one of them. He liked Benzedrine, I liked Benzedrine too, so when I would close up we would have our Benzedrine and go to parties. I used to play bongos with him and take a guitar. One time we were crossing Bleecker Street, and he’s talking and all of a sudden I hear him say, “A warm summer’s night, the two sixteen year old sisters”—that was it. I don’t know if he’s quoting an ancient Chinese poem; I don’t know if he made it up at that moment. It’s a nice line, isn’t it?
Rail: Yeah, yeah.
Poons: I didn’t ask him what it meant; it was like at that moment it took me aback to hear it.
Rail: What was he like to know?
Poons: He was just a regular, nice, sweet guy.
Rail: His writing process was interesting.
Poons: Kerouac wrote too fast for the changes of paper in the typewriter, so he put in a big roll so he could just keep pecking away. As I put up the whole roll of canvas around the room without worrying where the little paintings are going to be, just paint. Worry about where the book is later.
Rail: The whole roll of canvas goes around the four walls of the studio?
Poons: Yeah, yeah.
Rail: How and when did this begin?
Poons: It began using the whole floor—skimming the paint along canvas on the floor. Then when I got the bright idea—duh! Actually, I had some paintings rolled up and covered with plastic, and the paint from the floor would come splattering up.
Rail: And then drip back down?
Poons: Right. I’m looking at some paintings with Clem Greenberg and a friend, and Clem says, “look at that,” and points to where the paint had splattered up. I said, “yeah, I could draw that way, it’s something more discrete rather than the pools of color. This was the direction the paintings were going in until then. So I put the canvas up around the room and threw the paint from buckets. The first painting made like that turned out to be the whole roll—a picture called Rail Road Horse.
Rail: Rail Road Horse., 1971, in the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, right?
Poons: Yeah, that’s the whole roll of the first thrown picture. I wasn’t sure which way it went. We took it to Rubin’s (Lawrence Rubin Gallery, New York) on a roll, unstretched. On the day we put it up at the gallery, Clem took one look and said,
Rail: That’s it?
Poons: That’s exactly what he said, and so we stretched the whole thing.
Poons: Yeah, that’s how it happened. It’s simple. It’s like someone saying, “what if you turn this sax over,” and it then works. Or, “set the drums up this way.” It’s like, what can I do with this poem? My wife can’t do anything with it either. What am I going to do? I imagine it was Eliot’s wife who said, “call up Pound—he’s the smartest fucker we know—give it to him.” So Pound got The Wasteland, edited it, and that’s what we get to read.
Rail: Right. It took someone else to take a look.
Poons: Edited by Ezra Pound, poem by T.S. Eliot.
Rail: Is there someone who notices these days something in the studio, as you describe Greenberg doing?
Poons: Sure, Paula does [sculptor Paula DeLuccia, Poons’s wife].
Rail: Having an exhibition such as the one upcoming at Yares can reveal how reactions change to older works as well as new work. There will be dot paintings and thrown paintings included, for example.
Poons: Reveal something to them. Paintings don’t change—we do. Can the paintings escape their time and still look fresh? I can go into a show of an artist’s work from the ‘60s, and I’m right back in the ‘60s—they’ve stayed in their time. I walk into a room of Warhol paintings, and I’m back in Leo’s gallery [Leo Castelli Gallery]. It’s like a time warp. You walk into a room of Noland’s [Kenneth Noland] it’s a time warp. You walk into a room of Pollock’s—its like these have been painted yesterday. It’s the same for Mondrian and early Cubist Picasso—they don’t look old. But Jasper Johns looks old; they haven’t escaped their time. Great painting does escape the time in which it’s painted.
Rail: Without of course having any experience of the time in which it was painted, a Velázquez painting can still move and thrill—emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, technically.
Poons: Why don’t these paintings look old—Cézanne or Goya? They never did.
This wag said, “There was no bad music until Vivaldi.” Same thing with never seeing a bad painting that isn’t well painted. It’s different than a failed painting. Bad stuff is never a failure. Stanley Kubrick said after the release of a new movie, “I guess I’m still fooling them.” He wasn’t joking. Just watch his movies—what isn’t there? What makes Godard so good? What makes Rossellini so great? I mean—Paisan, My Life to Live, Alphaville—masterpieces!
Poons: Let’s get the canvas up and throw some color. The same, make it up.
Rail: Godard is certainly making it up, improvising, inventing as he goes in those films.
Rail: With cuts, edits, pace, rhythm.
Poons: You know how much music Bach has written? It would take a trained copyist thirty years to copy it. How did Bach do this? Quickly. “Should I do this, or this?” Never occurred to him. Mozart would write something like you would write a letter; he would carry it around in his head and then sit down and write it. It’s what you’re stuck with. And that’s enough—to move onto the next work or the next word paragraph. In most professions it’s like if you don’t practice you’re not going to crack this—do you think that made sense to T.S. Elliot or Shakespeare? What are you talking about—you write, you paint. That’s all there is. It’s just doing; not thinking. In philosophy you have to be able to write; you’ve got to be as good a writer as Conrad writing Heart of Darkness to be a great psychologist. Without their ability to write, there is no philosophy!
Rail: Let’s finish the conversation here. And thanks, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Poons: Do you want to listen to something nice?
Poons: [Puts on a 1964 vinyl recording of the Stanley Brothers singing Train 45 live].
DAVID RHODES is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK. He has published reviews in the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, and Artcritical, among other publications.