Larry Poons

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Photo of Larry Poons, March 1981

Larry Poons is our most accomplished living painter having given us half a century of ambitious, modern painting.  During this time he has reinvented himself again and again.  And his latest work seems to have renewed the New York artworld’s attention, which he already enjoyed in the 1960’s, and then lost in the early 1970’s.  Now 74, he certainly deserves all the acclaim he can get, but he will never get the glory that his achievements warrant, at least while he is alive.  After all, he is a contemporary of Andy Warhol and the Pop artists, including the Pop abstractionists like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.  Their works now sell for tens of millions while the highest price ever achieved by a Poons at auction was $176,000 in 1989 for a 1965 picture.  Yet are any of these Pop artists even remotely close to Poons as a master painter?

At the summit of Poons’ achievement are his large, long, heroic horizontals, some of which reach 25 feet across.  Over the course of his career, he has realized these in very different styles, all products of his profound and audacious creative mind.

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“Cherry Smash”, 1963, 56″ x 56″

As I recall, I first met Larry in the early 1960’s at Brandeis University, on the occasion of a panel on contemporary art.  As I remember, Sam Hunter, Barbara Rose, Barnett Newman, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg were all participants.  A group of us, then at Harvard’s graduate school, who were enthusiasts of modernist painting, came to see and hear: Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Kermit Champa, and Charles Milliard.  Larry showed up on a motorcycle dressed as a biker.  I had already seen some of his paintings at the Green Gallery in New York.  These were his breakthrough dot pictures.  They were “all over”, without a single point of focus.  They “got right out to the edges”, as Larry later described them, in other words, they were “open”, to use Clement Greenberg’s term.  At first they were rigid and crowded, but, as he relaxed, the color began to breathe freely.  Here Larry bet everything on broad areas of a vivid color punctuated by small, but palpable, frenetically flickering dots, and later ovals, of a different hue.  Taut, edgy, ethereal, yet sensual, the best of these pictures put Larry squarely in the company of the second wave of Color Field painters who came to prominence in the late 50’s and early 60’s:  Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Friedel Dzubas, Jules Olitski, Jack Bush, Walter Darby Bannard and others.  Poons was the youngest of the group.  While the first four painters mentioned above all came directly out of Jackson Pollock, Poons was a protégé of the first generation Color Field painter, Barnett Newman.  Of all the first generation, Newman came closest to what later became “conceptual art”, and Larry’s early dot pictures too have some of this, based, as they are on musical progressions.  But they were also the most fiercely optical (at least until Noland’s stripe pictures begun in 1966.)  For these reasons, Poons was often wrongly grouped with the Op artists and even the Minimalists. 

Next, Poons was inspired by Jules Olitski’s 1966 foray into the painterly.  Larry too, but more gradually, gave up hard edges and full force, bright color for modulation, the painterly, and a spontaneously physical involvement with the medium.  Lots of excellent pictures were done during what now looks like a transitional period (1967-69).  But suddenly, in 1969, Larry got a second jolt from Jules.  This time it was Jules’ show of monumental, sprayed, metal sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.  These were outrageously ambitious and original.  Poon’s first reaction was to get even more radically physical, putting his canvases on the floor, like Pollock and Louis before  him, pouring paint on a large scale.  The surface became dense and aggressively three dimensional.  Scale became literally one to one with the viewer’s making the whole more immediate.  The first of these were the vertical band painters of 1969 made by pouring out columns of different colors side by side.  I once wrote about these pictures:  “the thick paint surfaces make them seem leathery and over physical”.  How wrong I was!  Shaped by the relatively dry, warm, absorbent surfaces of Color Field painting, my taste was rejecting the new, shiny, plastic surfaces, which I later learned to love and see as the best new thing.  Larry himself seemed to reject this shiny, plastic look.  He quickly turned in a different direction.  In 1970, he began dumping buckets of acrylic paint onto the center of the canvas.  Heavily wrinkled and lumpy, these pictures were dubbed the “elephant skin” pictures by Michael Fried.  If Jules, with his sprayed pictures, had created space within the surface, as Clement Greenberg wrote, then Larry had here closed it off and built it up.  The dense viscosity was like European, post war, “matter painting” (Jean Dubuffet, Antonio Burri, Antonio Tapies and others) but here achieved with acrylics and so, with a very different, more contemporary feeling.  Here and elsewhere, Larry anticipated the New New painters who came along in the early 1980’s, and who were all inspired by him.

It was only in 1971 that Larry found what he was looking for.  As I remember the story:  one day Clement Greenberg, who was often a visitor in Larry’s studio in those years, pointed to the visual effectiveness of some falling skeins of paint that had accidentally hit some plastic wrapping near the work area.  This triggered Larry’s creative imagination which brought forth a whole new kind of picture:  the daring and outrageous “cascades”.  “Railroad Horse” was the prototype.  It had been made by tacking up a huge length of canvas so that it ran all around three walls of his studio, and then heaving overhand, 5 gallon buckets of acrylic paint at the top of it.  The paint splattered forming an arc of impact which then streamed down the surface, to the floor.  “Railroad Horse” was the first of these and runs the whole length, which is over 25′.  Larry didn’t crop into it making multiple narrower pictures as he usually did later.

The first time I saw “Railroad Horse” was shortly before the opening of his 1971 exhibit at the Lawrence Rubin Gallery on 57th St.  I was thunderstruck.  It was the most exciting show I had seen since Jules’ tall spray paintings at the American Pavilion in 1966 at the Venice Biennale.  In my mind, “Railroad Horse” put Larry together with Jules, at the forefront of Modernist painting at that moment.  It had a panoramic sweep and gravitational plunge, like some grand waterfall, all in the most gorgeous, light filled color.  After his heavings, Larry had gone back in and stained a salmon and a mustard color at the area above the arc.  Like his mentor, Barnett Newman, Larry sought here the imposing, the awe inspiring, the sublime.  Also it dramatized the jaw dropping possibilities of the new, water based, acrylic paints and gels.  Then and there, I decided to acquire it for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Over the next decade, I was lucky enough to sometimes be in Larry’s studio, so I could watch him explore the implications of his dumfounding, utterly outrageous, way of painting.  Once I was there when he was painting (along with Paula DeLucca, Lucy Baker). My main take away from this experience was how shockingly violent, loud, chaotic it all was.  But it was also enormous fun and very exciting.  I especially remember Paula as being as hard hitting as Larry.

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“Donen”, 1977, 111″ x 69 1/2″

I was also a few times at the studio when the cropping (which Larry has called “editing”) was being done.  Larry was always ready to entertain suggestions and, at one point, relied heavily on the sculptor, Michael Steiner, whom I once kiddingly called “Larry’s tailor”.  Larry casualness about accepting help was of a piece with his genius.  He knew very well how to orchestrate his conception.

Ten years later, I put on a show of these “cascade” pictures at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  George and Lois DeMenil made it possible.  It was a knockout and I was enormously proud of it.  But no other museum would take it.  Nor was I able to expand the catalogue into a book as I had done with the catalogue for Jules’ show 6 years before.  André Emmerich and I gave it our best shot, but no one would publisher it.  Postmodernism had already set in.  Warhol was the new Messiah and even an artist who flung buckets of paint wasn’t amazing enough, or new enough, for the art book publishers of the day.  I have only a few copies of the catalogue left.  I hope it has an afterlife, since I still like very much what I wrote there.

Larry paid a big price for being inspired by Jules.  He lost the art world’s attention which he had had in 1969, when he was featured in Henry Geltzahler’s big show “New York Painting And Sculpture, 1940-1970.”  Two years later, Larry was included in a Whitney Museum show “The Structure of Color.”  After that, Larry was no longer “in” in New York and he, like Jules, existed only at the margins of Artworld attention.  His pictures did appear at auction, but achieved dismal prices.  But Larry had been challenged by Olitski, and nothing else mattered.  He wanted to be the best.

If the cascade pictures had a potential limitation, it was their insistent, vertical striations.  This was the downside of their holistic, frontal assault.  I remember one picture in the Boston show which had a hitch at one point in the downpour skewing some of it diagonally.  The picture jumped out, and made the others hanging near it seem a bit over organized, too insistently vertical.  Something like this may have prompted Larry, at the end of the 70’s, to begin with thick underpaint of gel before throwing.  This gave the pictures a more tactile surface, with its own rhythm, which in turned pushed the downpour back, creating an illusion within the surface.  Other modernist painters working with acrylics were already seeking more three dimensional sculptural surfaces.  One was Peter Bradley who used large pieces of foam to build up his surfaces already in the mid 70’s. (At one point, Bradley also adopted the shiny plastic look that Poons had touched on in his vertical band pictures).  Another was Susan Roth, who began collaging other pieces of canvas onto her surfaces.  Like Bradley, she was exploiting the ability of acrylic gel to act as a kind of binding, folding different elements into the body of the picture.  In the early1980’s, Larry began affixing light materials onto his surfaces before the throwing.  These eventually included pieces of Styrofoam, polyester fibre pebbles, rubber foam, carpet lining, flexible batting of different shapes, crumpled and folded paper, glue and nerf balls.  (Sometimes these were brightly colored as a kind of underpainting.)  He also often began with a small sketch in pencil of where he was going to place the collaged on pieces.  Sometimes he would transfer these sketches to the canvas with charcoal.  The results were two interlocking systems:  the three dimensional “underdrawing”, breaking through from behind, and the streaming striations which appeared both above and behind the “underdrawing”.

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“The Unknown”, 1985, 83 3/4″ x 133″ (detail)

Throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s, Larry took this physicality further and further, cutting out shapes from big sheets of foam into all sorts of flat shapes.  The picture surface becomes robustly three dimensional, even crude. The cascades of the 1970’s still stick to close, middle values and the high impassiveness of Olitski even though, in comparison, Poons is far coarser and expressionistic.  Yet the heavy build up varies from the rugged, rock-like to the extreme delicacy and fragility of paper.  Add to this the richness of the many embedded layers of paint and color.  Most of these pictures tend toward neutral colors, although sometimes brighter colors peek out from behind.  The biggest reason for the neutral colors is Larry’s recycling of the paint which had fallen down the surface and off the bottom edge.  Some of these paintings are predominantly brown, maroonish and struck many observes as muddy, turgid, clogged and over wrought.  Others tend toward grey like the great “Hank”, 1985, 72½”x217”, in Bruce Gitlin’s collection.  At a 2004 mini retrospective at the Howard Jacobson Gallery, there was a big, dark, horizontal, called “Smith Train”, done in 1988.  Although very unfavorable hung, it towered majestically over all the other work.  But this wasn’t at all the view of New Yorkers whom I talked to, including a prominent dealer.  They all loved the other work, but thought “Smith Train” “gloomy”, “depressing” and “ugly’.  Somber and deeply serious it certainly is, but it is also powerful, commanding and mysterious.  I strikes a very deep chord.

Then, there are those blond pictures which came in the late 80’s and were shown recently at the new Loretta Howard Gallery.  The key picture here was “Brahms in Rio” 1982, 84¼”x 170½”, which has that grandeur and sweep of Larry’s best pictures.  The fact that these relief paintings seem as if formed by natural forces has disturbed some critics, like Donald Kuspit, who see them as too much process, too “brainless”, and not enough an act of human will.  Similar things were said about Pollock, who once declared “I am nature”.  In fact,  a picture like “Brahms in Rio” is a massive assertion of the will.  Larry here identifies with, and thereby orchestrates, natural processes on a grand scale.  There will always be those who find god-like ambition and the sublime too scary.  My own view is that Larry did more big horizontal master pieces in this period, the 80’s and early 90’s, than any time before or since.

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“Taberer”, 1999, 76″ x 85 1/2″

Next, in the mid 90’s, Larry began painting a few of the foam strips bright color after he had finished throwing.  The underdrawing suddenly became the unambiguous foreground.  This again led him to a whole new kind of picture, almost the opposite of what he had been doing.  He went from throwing buckets of paint onto roughly textured surfaces to painting many small areas, each differently, and all by hand.  Already in the 80’s, the relief “underdrawing” seemed to tell a tale and now this narrative quality increased exponentially.  Also, the linear here plays a bigger role than ever before.  These pictures make me think of Matisse and Milton Avery, but also, somehow, Stuart Davis.  Playful in spirit, they are funky, zany and pictographic with suggestions of landscape, interior, still life, geometric forms, and musical notation.  Dense with patterns and textures, the surface is left to breathe through from below.  Pastel colors usually dominate.  There are occasionally a few sharp value contrasts but these are easily absorbed in the close valued whole.  These pictures also have what seem like an acute dryness, at least when seen through eyes schooled by the New New painting, with its love of glossy, glitzy surfaces.  Larry has turned his back on the New New, not wanting to exhibit with them, although he is well aware of their presence and sensibility.  Back in 1993, he wrote an angry letter to me dismissing the New New (although he didn’t, and still doesn’t, know their work very well) and asserting that they were no more than the sum of their influences (mostly him).  Also, he has steered clear of the many new effects made possible by acrylic paints since the middle 80’s, which have been so central to New New concerns: interference metallic paints (developed first in the auto industry), panspectra paint, holographic paint, glitter paint, clarified gel et al.  Of course no artist has responsibility to use any specific material and, in any event, materials don’t decide quality.  But they can count when it comes freshness and surprise.  It is remarkable that a painter who has been at the very forefront of conceiving new possibilities in the new acrylic medium (and who has shown such Promethean ambition) would let it pass him by.  But perhaps this is merely a question of generation or personal sensibility.  But wait, not so fast, it turns out that sometimes Larry actually does use some of the most striking of these new effects like florescent color and interference metallics, but then proceeds to mostly cover them up, overlaying the present with the past as it were.  Perhaps working against New New sensibility inspires him.  In any event, Larry’s segmented pictures, 1995-2003, are very unique; they stand out and they stand alone.  As I noted above, Larry is at his most magnificent in“oversize” pictures.  With these segmented pictures, I think immediately of “Cucamonga”, of 1998, 6’5”x22’5”.  Both episodic and epic, it is gorgeously radiant with a thicket of rackling drawing strewn across the center.  It’s a magical piece.

Larry had accustomed me to expect startlingly original ideas, so when I first saw his most recent work, starting in 2003, I was disappointed.  The pictures seemed too tame, too ingratiating, too familiar.  He had eliminated the foam drawing and, with it, the sculptural.  The matt, mostly flat surfaces, all over articulation, and familiar, repetitive, Impressionist palette, weighted toward pastels, all could have been done 30 or more years ago.  So I called Larry and asked to come to the studio to see if I was missing something.  I was.  We looked at ten or more good size paintings.  The more I looked, the more engaging these pictures became.  This was confirmed when I saw the next two shows at Jacobson Howard Gallery as well as several more at the Danese Gallery.  On the other hand, at a 2005 exhibition at the Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn, these recent pictures were upstaged by the inclusion of two examples of his earlier work, one from 1968, and one from 1991.  The earlier pictures, especially the big, later one, were simply more commanding, more dramatic.  I had the same reaction to his latest show at the Golden Gallery in New Berlin, New York.  But again, the latest paintings kept on giving the longer I looked.  They have a perpetual, unhinged restlessness and chromatic fullness which is undeniable.

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“Lady From Augusta”, 2006, 64 1/2″ x 77″

Formally, these new works are made of mostly small touches or patches of spasmodic, improvisational, arm, hand and finger movements.  This is the first time Poons has relied so completely on his “touch”.  The application, while infinitely varied, shows little impasto and doesn’t count much as drawing or shape.  It does however convey an uncanny kind of movement and above all gives prime of place to color.  It represents a further scaling down of his basic unit.  These pictures also make his mastery undeniable.  Effulgent, and intimate, they too are unique in Poon’s work.  Many have seen them as his best ever.  Perhaps they should be seen as a distillation of deep essentials which we find in the later work of many great masters. 

In any event, Larry’s evoke the light filled color of Impressionists like Cézanne, Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro, Bonnard, Vuillard and especially in his late pictures, Monet, with their occasional wispy strokes and areas left unpainted.  It certainly would be instructive to see them side by side.  My sense is that late Monet, say in the best of his Lily Pads, is more calligraphically expressive with his application, more varied in color harmonies, and, of course, more spatially suggestive, seeking, as they do, to reconcile the slopping away of the water’s surface, the reflections, and the picture plane.  Larry on the other hand, is free to be as improvisatory as he wishes and he offers his own unique kind of movement and a virtually infinite number of color choices.  Also, Poons’ pictures have a lightness, brightness and buoyancy, with color clinging delicately to the surface that belongs to acrylics, compared to the weightier and denser oil medium employed by Monet.  Acrylics permit Larry to give us Impressionism palette in a higher key.  (Doubtless his use of fluorescent and metallic underpainting, play some role here too.)  Finally, the largest of Poon’s recent works, like “Miles to Gram Parsons”, 2003, 66”x160”, which was in the New Berlin show, have an epic quality not found even in Monet’s largest pictures.

All the same, Larry’s most recent pictures can’t quite shake the sense of déjà vu, at least for me.  I was confirmed in this at his double showing at the Danese Gallery and Lori Bookstein Gallery this year.  One picture at Danese’s, a big square (76¾x76¾), called “Land of Poison”, was mostly black and had something of the streaming down of his earlier, thrown pictures.  It may not have been the best picture on view, but it jumped out at me, a real surprise.  (There was a smaller, related one, at the Bookstein show).  It made me think that Larry is far from finished, and probably has more surprises in store for me.  Perhaps he will reinvent himself yet again.  Perhaps he will even come to finally fully embrace post 1980’s sensibility just as have Olitski, Bannard and the New New.

Following Larry’s art these part 50 years has certainly been a thrilling ride.  Why doesn’t one of New York’s major museums follow Roberta Smith’s call for a big survey show of his work and to spread out for us, his magnificent achievements?  Best of all would be a really big show of his really big pictures.