Richard Pousette-Dart: 1950s: Spirit and Substance
On ViewPace Gallery
Richard Pousette-Dart: 1950s: Spirit and Substance
November 11 – December 17, 2022
“The equation is always open and forever growing. The horizons & possibilities are unlimited.” In over 220 studio notebooks filled with mantras like this one, Richard Pousette-Dart (1916–92) advocated for the limitless potential of abstract art, finding with each rephrasing slight variations in emphasis and lyricism. Pace’s current exhibition of the artist’s work from the 1950s unites for the first time a selection of these writings alongside his sweeping output across mediums—from painting to lesser-known experiments in sculpture, drawing, photography, and brass carving. Curated by the artist’s daughter, Joanna Pousette-Dart, 1950s: Spirit and Substance adopts his logic of a standard equation that can radiate endlessly in innumerable directions. Here, a set of unassuming hand-held brass glyphs and totems inspired by Native American artifacts the artist encountered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art seamlessly sidles up to monumental abstractions lugging layers of built-up pigment. In fact, the forms developed in the brasses and their preparatory drawings inhabit nearly every work on view, as if they scaled up and shed their metallic coats to lurk among the lattices of Pousette-Dart’s paintings. Or slithered with increasing legibility into compartments of his watercolor drawings, and from there onto the mangled nests of wire sculptures, taking up residence alongside diverse found objects.
Ultimately, what this comprehensive exhibition offers is demystification. With enigmatic imagery and esoteric references to mythology and astronomy, the works included here initially present a staggering epistemic hurdle. Like his New York School peers, Pousette-Dart plumbed subject matter that Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko described as “tragic and timeless,” aspiring to some mythic horizon beyond the quotidian.1 Yet what differentiates Pousette-Dart, the youngest member of this loosely organized cohort, was his abiding desire to reveal the universe as an interconnected cosmological system. Against the alienation expressed by many of his generation, Pousette-Dart held that it was the moral responsibility of the artist to uncover spiritual truths and secret recesses: “The true artist continuously calculates the nature of the universe. He makes visible what cannot be seen.”2
Pousette-Dart’s precocious convictions, already guiding him by age twenty, were informed by his mother Flora Pousette-Dart’s artistic philosophy. Her own book of poetry, titled I Saw Time Open (1947), associates sight and perception with the act of witnessing the miraculous. And similarly, a centerpiece of this exhibition, Window Number 4 (1948–50), announces painting as a portal to other dimensions. A mustard-yellow rectangular recess embedded in a coagulated surround of encrusted paint sits at the center of the composition, alluding, perhaps, to the promise of the fourth dimension, a concept popularized by advances in physics in the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, inscribed in the rectangle we find a circle containing embryonic seeds—an archetype of birth and creation. This visual shorthand can be traced throughout the artist’s oeuvre, where it simultaneously gains and loses coherence. In Le Bijou (1957), a glimmering canvas hung nearby, the dotted circle becomes a polyvalent symbol in a mosaic-like tableau of images. Alongside crescent moons and misshapen fish, these can be translated as amebic organisms or freestanding eyes, or even gemstones as the painting’s title implies. For Pousette-Dart, this motif also represented the duality of the atom, at once biological substance and apocalyptic weapon. Though there is no single iconographic code to decipher his system of signs, there is a rhythm or cyclicality that resounds throughout—an assurance that these things exist in some bounded, if not harmonious, unity.
During the years covered by this exhibition Pousette-Dart retreated from New York City, decamping with his young family to the Lower Hudson Valley at the very moment of Abstract Expressionism’s ascendance. The wire sculptures begun during the period—habitable nests built of spatialized lines—appear a direct result of his greater contact with nature. An incisive grouping places The Woman with a Horn (Wire Sculpture #4) (1951) in front of three paintings, revealing a neglected resonance between these two bodies of work. Whether articulated by emphatic lines or tactile deposits of pigment, the anthropomorphic form is enshrined: what it means to be in the world, both physically and spiritually, is never far from view.
The works on view in this exhibition show us Pousette-Dart’s sustained attempt to think of and represent the self relationally, as part of a cosmological totality that encompasses vaguely defined architectures, alien bodies, symbolic constellations, and energy fields. Here we find a body of work that pushes back against the now-axiomatic critique of Abstract Expressionism’s self-reverence and solipsism, qualities typified by Barnett Newman’s claim that these artists were “making cathedrals” out of themselves.3 Closing the exhibition, a suite of “Predominantly White” paintings tenders instead a vision of life interlocked. In Quiet Lovers (1950–51), a couple is suspended amid a collapsed plane of densely netted graphite lines and curls. It is as if in their union the bodies are instantaneously trapped in the universe’s mysterious amber—the thread of myth, the endless return of time. This is Pousette-Dart in the act of revelation.
- Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, “Statement,” New York Times, June 13, 1943, pp.
- Undated statement by Richard Pousette-Dart in the notebooks of the artist, B97, p. 116.
- Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” reprinted in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O’Neill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 173.