Test PatternsJohn Haber
in New York City
Richard Pousette-Dart and Peter Young
Richard Pousette-Dart will always come with a label, the New York School. Most people know little else about him, and few artists would care to shake off a label like that. Besides, he earned it.
Most New Yorkers, however, will come to him walking up the ramp, to a Guggenheim tower gallery. They will see the largest room first and his later work. They will also see busy, even tacky patterns and thick, reflective surfaces. They may look dazzling at one moment, labored and mannered at the next. Either way, they look like anything but Abstract Expressionism.
Perhaps they will suggest a "minor" Abstract Expressionist, the one that everyone can name but no one can quite remember. They definitely suggest an artist who went his own way. Born in 1916, Pousette-Dart remained a fixture through the alleged death of painting, as artist and teacher, until his death in 1992. Yet they also yield some alternative stories about Modernism in America. Together with some other half-forgotten test patterns by Peter Young, they give a sense, too, of what happened next. A postscript four years later focuses on Pousette-Dart's critical years in New York City.
Anyone can explain the label. Richard Pousette-Dart painted to the edge of the canvas, and increasingly he painted large. Call it a stretch, but the Guggenheim credits him with anticipating the movement's mural scale. He turned early to American themes, from Native American art to the A-Bomb, but never to the urban scene or the pastoral. The Modern snatched up a painting, The Desert, in 1940, when the older artists around him were just beginning to remap modern art with New York at its center.
He has all the right credentials, too. He went on to show at the Willard gallery, which had introduced William Baziotes and Mark Tobey. He exhibited with Betty Parsons, who took on Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. Much of his work in museums still dates from those years. His retrospective originated at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, curated by its director and associate curator.
And anyone can explain why the late work does not "look right." For starters, the artist builds up a painting from stiff daubs of oil, many almost the size of a thumbprint and the thickness of fingernail. They run up against one another, overlay one another, and never quite bleed into one another. They cover every inch of canvas, with no breathing space in between, like Joe Zucker without the cotton candy. Pointillism has gone 3D.
Some stick to one color, and a few use all three primaries, but many rely on black, too, and almost all have a serious dose of white. Pousette-Dart often appears to have started with a layer of one color, already too dense to call a ground. With the next, he marks out what will become the thick lines of an image, without really drawing. With the rest, he both intensifies it and comes close to obliterating it. Colors blend, often into still more white, but optically.
One painting represents what he calls fragments of a poem—mostly repeated words on the theme of light and shadow. At least I think they are, since I challenge anyone to read it. The other images are, if anything, all too obvious. One might get the sun, the moon, and plenty of totems, perhaps with rectangular divisions in between. Titles, too, talk of universal truths. The artist distributes some patterns symmetrically or centrally, but for the most part he does not.
Pousette-Dart always has one eye on his craft, the other on eternity. He dwells on the signs and symbols, the mark of the artist's self on the universe and the universe on himself, that Pollock in time learned to paint out. If one wants to call his generation action painting, the action here moves very, very slowly. If one wants to call it Abstract Expressionism, it is not all that abstract or expressive. The brushwork stabs, clots, and accretes rather than drips, smears, or slashes. If formalism once demanded flatness and purity, the surfaces are anything but flat, and both the images and the technique's echoes of weaving are anything but pure.
Late modern starts
The oddness of those late paintings registers just as much on a gut level. They have nothing of the sweep and sensuality of older abstraction, and they do not seem all that concerned for the nature or future of painting. They lack the playfulness of younger artists just rediscovering painting in the 1970s and after. The images do not mean all that much. I almost dismissed them off the bat as fussy and rigid, and they look that way again in memory. The retrospective undermines canonical terms like major and minor artist, but it does not turn Pousette-Dart into a major one.
In person, however, the optical activity can make anyone dizzy. After a few moments the glow builds, and I had to stay to figure out how it got there. I stayed longer to let it lap over me. When I returned to the group show on the ramp, with the bright, flashing lights of "The Shapes of Space," the combination practically drove me right out of the museum. A friend dragged us instead into the permanent wing for relief.
The technique carries a punch. It also makes an old Modernist surprisingly relevant now. The impurity, the garishness, and the totem poles would fit right into the latest show byPhilip Taaffe, and their evolution could track changes in painting for thirty years. The mix of primaries, the swirls closest to abstraction, and the most dizzying works date from the 1960s, the decade of Op Art, Bridget Riley, and psychedelia. The 1970 bring pattern and decoration. The 1980 ushers in Neo-Geo. Glenn Ligon might have painted those words submerged in black, and everyone today seems to want the gallery to represent an apocalypse.
If these seem like small pleasures compared to the New York School, they do reflect is origins. Pousette-Dart did not so much break with his past, like Philip Guston, as hang in there when greater artists had moved on. His earliest works look like imitations of Picasso by Arshile Gorky, but with faces instead of still life. Their caked whites already set the tone for a long career. Pousette-Dart's first mature images parallel early Pollock, with much the same birds, totems, mysterious writing, and leaden anxiety. Adolph Gottlieb, too, first put these hieroglyphics into the boxes of a black grid. They look backward, to Jung's archetypes, and forward to an uncertain future.
The Guggenheim does a nice job in revealing all this. After so many big empty shows, it returns to modern art in a refreshingly small way. For barely a month, it takes a lesser-known but representative painter, makes no preposterous claims for him, uses the different scales of two adjacent rooms well, and concentrates on just forty paintings and a few drawings. I wondered why retrospectives always have to loom so much larger. The curators also cheat a lot, in the interest of the story. Only the drawings and one or two paintings show Pousette-Dart's looser crossed lines or curves rather than all this precision, and one would never know that he really did lean heavily on symmetry for the rest of his life.
Mostly, however, the continuity of his art obliges one to recognize other currents in Modernism, not just the autonomy of fine art. Like the Abstract Expressionists, he merged Cubism and Surrealism in order to break with either one. For them, too, the mix let painting stop telling obvious stories—to become abstract, if you will—without losing concern for the shifting identities of figure and ground. And for them, too, the inch or so of space in front of the canvas became simultaneously a new fiction and an extension of the room. It also became a battleground for art ever since. If that means that Modernism never did achieve purity, never did stray that far from the poles of pattern painting and Freud for beginners, maybe that explains why it, too, still hangs over a lot of artists.
Like Pousette-Dart's persistence, Elizabeth Murray's death one August Sunday recalled some already distant years, when art had not yet grown so fashionable. Some wondered whether such things had a future—or deserved one. No wonder museums have been looking back recently with wonder. In the last decade, big-ticket exhibitions had already struggled with the millennium and a century of modern art, endorsed another round of emerging artists and "midcareer" trend setters, and paid their usual respects to those in-between. Somehow, though, the last year and a half has seen something else instead. I mean an extraordinary concentration on the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Museums have looked at those who pushed large static structures past their limits, like Robert Smithson, Jennifer Bartlett, Eva Hesse, Louise Nevelson, and now Richard Serra. With Sean Scully and Brice Marden, as well as Ron Gorchov, abstract painting, too, found ways to continue when others had left it for dead. What has happened? No doubt museums need "Old Masters," and the official march toward another "greatest generation" simply reached the next decade. Perhaps, however, those years feel uncomfortably close to today. Then Modernism and its chroniclers had challenged artists to do something original, and now the art market does the same.
Obviously some artists back then managed to break boundaries, to extend traditions, or both. One could almost forget how the challenge weighed upon others, just as it did on my college friends a bit later. Could they paint like Frank Stella and Marden, and if so, could they make painting their own? If not, why? With Peter Young, P.S. 1 has in mind yet another saga of trials, persistence, and rediscovery. Instead, it exemplifies how so many artists poured their heart into draft after draft, in hope of leaving their signature.
Young, who also appeared in a recent show about the persistence of abstraction, starts minimally enough in 1963, with small paintings, dense patterns, and thick stretchers. Together, they all but shout "art object!" They look as if Josef Albers had taken up Joseph Cornell boxes. Before long, however, the artist still in his mid-twenties is seeking a way out. He tries to let the ground mean as much as the figure, by stripping out the color, stripping down the all-over pattern, and setting it loose. White dots cluster and meander across black canvas and vice versa, like Damien Hirst but with LSD in place of irony.
Not that I am accusing Young of harboring illegal substances. His next, more Zen-like creations, though, seem just right for the "summer of love." Here he lays thin, unevenly spaced horizontal and vertical black lines over light blue acrylic, to him the color of open sky. In reproduction more than in the original, the blue shades into white as if touched by sunlight. Not that their spareness lasts long either. Within years Young turns for inspiration to Rorschach tests and to the native culture of Costa Rica. He is seeking other antecedents and psychological currents in late Modernism's fearful symmetry.
Things keep getting messier for a while. Then the dots come back, sometimes as acrylic beads, not quite as calm or as restless as before, but in search of a literal middle ground for painting. And then, in 1977, the little retrospective stops, without so much as a happy ending. No stage in those thirteen years ever convinces me. However, their constant changes alone tell a story, and so does their dead end. It could be the story of someone I know.
In 1950, an artist strung a network of wire across a makeshift frame. It has no pretense of permanence or perfection. Little is welded, much less carved. The frame consists of four slats of the same copper color, and the wire loops about it simply to stay put. The weave spreads loosely but thoroughly, like an "all-over" painting," gathering to accentuate a few central horizontals and verticals, before finding thicker nodes almost like drips. The composition looks improvised but geometric, starting with the square frame.
Has yet another contemporary European kept up the veneer of gesture and abstraction for a grungier age? The poshest block in Chelsea has more than enough of just that, as with Lucio Fontana's slashed canvas and Sterling Ruby's ceramic vomitorium a month before. But no, this is the real thing, from the very year of Pollock's One. Someone other than David Smith pulled off Abstract Expressionist sculpture after all. Talk of "drawing in space," but the work truly does hang by wires, like a painting.
Pousette-Dart knew Pollock quite well, thank you. Again, the same dealers championed them both—and if the sculpture comes as a surprise, New York has not seen it since it showed at Betty Parsons. Could Pousette-Dart even have pride of place? Although the youngest in a movement that matured slowly, he entered a New York museum quickly. "East River Studio" is "Abstract Expressionist New York" when that meant not East Village art but an abandoned brewery in midtown. The artist caught the morning light there until the end of an era—when he moved upstate until his death in 1992, much as Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning headed for eastern Long Island.
Indeed, he knew them all too well. de Kooning's black and white hang over the younger artist's purest abstraction. Pollock's "personages" hang over still more of the show, long after Pollock outgrew them. So does a determination to trace and layer those signs, symbols, and impulses. They help explain Pousette-Dart's fussy, conservative reputation. Did, as I say, he always have one eye on his craft, the other on eternity? Yes, but he also had one eye on the river.
When one is a textbook figure, like Smith or Picasso, shows keep adding one footnote after another. When one is not, glimpses come slowly, as in 2007 at the Guggenheim, which made a case for later work—or the Phillips Collection last year, with "Predominantly White Paintings." (Not coincidentally, it was also showing Mr. White himself, Robert Ryman.) This time, one may have the most telling glimpse of all. It come across as a survey all by itself, without leaving his New York years. Morning light creates those cloud-like whites, while the personages have sharp contrasts of black and color. Relaxed and animated as conversation, they offer an alternative American Surrealism.
What the sculpture lacks as sculpture, it makes up in illuminating the painting. It also forges a connection to the future. One could mistake some freestanding "birds" for sculpture by Richard Stankiewicz, six years younger. Loops of yellow on canvas detach themselves from the ground, much like spheres or knots by Terry Winters. If only the crusty wire had more of Stankiewicz's weight and found objects, and if only the loops were not fallen angels. Pousette-Dart still looks precious after his generation's iconic energy and iconic form, but if one wants a great retrospective, it may as well end in 1956.
Richard Pousette-Dart ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 25, 2007, Peter Young at P.S. 1 through September 24. "East River Studio" ran at Luhring Augustine through December 17, 2011.