PRINT April 1965

Larry Poons

OF LATE, THE CAREER OF ABSTRACT ART, once uneasy and open-ended, is gelling in the work of a handful of American painters who have pressed a series of interlocking, but unique visions into existence. Three such painters are Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Frank Stella. Another, still in his twenties, is Larry Poons. The powers that have been funneled to give his art its distinctive range and tension have over-arched the esthetic landscape of perhaps the last twenty years and Poons, as a result, is one of those classic, central figures who sums up a tradition, while freshly extending its domain. If one thinks back to the problems of neo-Plasticism (especially the late Mondrian), they appear continued and developed in his work; or, if one considers the frozen systems and repeated images, and the emphasis on programmed chance, all of which characterize the present scene, they, too, are reflected indirectly in his canvases. Likewise do they expand and enrich earlier color-field explorations, now conjoined with that optical-retinal abstraction which may come to seem newly contemporary. And though he has never been an Abstract Expressionist, Poons echoes some of the “all-over” compositions, and even spatial interests, of Pollock. In only one of these concerns, moreover, (with Mondrian), has there been any conscious looking backward on the part of this young artist. Rather, one sees an easy and natural affinity between his own motivations and the great lines of abstract art, which keeps him from being, in any sense, just one more clever eclectic.

All of this, of course, remains the most routine of historical insights, remarkable only insofar as it was made possible by about two years of professional exposure of Poons’ art. Then too, under no circumstances is the establishment of his lineage any form of legitimization of an artist’s accomplishment. When I first saw one of his paintings at the Green Gallery in 1963, such thoughts in fact, were far from my mind. The bouncing after-images caused by turquoise polka dots on a darker, ochre-like ground were so prominent in their explosive arrivals and departures that there were no considerations of antecedents, or even “art,” as I knew it. Rather, the experience was like the playing of some mechanical game, in which each of my glances was retaliated by a battery of forces, apparently equivalent at every interval and encounter. My “investment” in the picture resembled nothing more meaningful or less consistent than the insertion of a coin in a vending machine: one got the same economic, dispensable product with every operation. Far from feeling deprived or excluded, as is almost traditional on my first contact with avant-garde art, I was entertained by a mechanism whose efficiency was as admirable as its esthetic claims were questionable.

But this feeling that the elements of the painting were over-stabilized, and that the general dimensions of the experience were too measurable, eventually began to break down. If the canvas was to be treated, after all, as a physical object, compartmentalized and structured with relationships that could only suggest, rather than be in, virtual movement, why did it literally flash on and off? And, in turn, if these were blinking lights, emitting their own luminosity, contrary to evidence, how was it that I could still remain aware of the materiality of images as distinct from all too apparent illusions? Poons’ azure or emerald discs had the disquieting ability to produce fugitive colleagues, lighter in value, but similar in hue to the brown-yellow ground. And these were choreographed involuntarily by an eye which seemed to have gone “dead” in one area, or whose reception of stimuli had been weakened by over-absorption of a color. What undermined the initial comprehensibility of the work was, and still is, this confusion about the nature of the data it represents. On one hand, an absence of metaphor; and on the other, a power of activation which metaphor can only vaguely imply.

What is more, the viewing period becomes subdivided into temporal instants that are separate in themselves. Refusing to merge, they set up a serial or “linear” observation that is more akin to the hearing of music than to the beholding of visual art. The insistent “beat” of many of Poons’ paintings (in the past, more random than it is now), obstructs our habitual tendency to organize perceptual material in quick scanning motions. Time wins over space in a manner that defeats one’s simultaneous anticipations and connections of implied motion, and compels systematic intervals of waiting. Only between the plangent “blips,” and then against the recurring odds of retinal saturation and fatigue, do the inexorable variations of the field materialize in shortwinded, interim counterpulses. (Or so, at least, my memory schematizes its experience.) This alternating circuitry, as it were, not only changes what we see––in this no different than in all meaningful art––but the way we see it.

Still, such processes are typical of the “optical” work so pervasive at the moment, and the common property of investigations that go back to early Gestalt psychology and the Bauhaus. Poons, however, was not prepared to sacrifice any structural integrity merely to the furtherance of systems or mechanisms that attacked the retina. Rather than demonstrate the density changes, the warm-cool conversions, or contour break-ups that come from the mesh-net facades of an Anuskiewicz, for example, he disaggregates his forms, so that afterimages are random and scattered. Compared to the ostinatos of a Bridget Riley, or the sonorous color chords of a Kelly or Liberman, Poons creates rippling arpeggios that lend propulsion to his chromatic contrasts, but ration their mass. He differentiates each of his myriad units against their common field, but keeps them from forming clusters that would produce a new field––exactly the opposite procedure of those who set up a uniform pattern and then change one or more of its components to pinpoint desired fluctuations.

Nevertheless, one can’t look at any of his works without becoming aware of gathering and unraveling skeins of organization that imply a unitary conception. Indeed, from the beginning, Poons always used some specific formulation, based on the marking off of intervals on a grid that would be like a scoreboard of progressions. Marching up, down, or across the columns, areas connected by dots or divisions plotted by augmented or decreased denominators of each span would produce a series of stilted, visual acrostics (1959–60). Later, he experimented with circles, either concentrically organized or more often partially quartered within, but generally inscribed flush with the rectangular perimeters (the colors usually red and green). Eventually, pencilling a grid again, Poons distributed small colored discs in more arbitrary, if still fixed, relations to their intersecting coordinates. More recently, he has introduced diagonal channels to the horizontal and vertical checkerboard, while adding ovals as both unit and color contrast. With the incorporation of an irregular set of ovals suddenly quite close in value to the ground, Poons insinuates a recession behind the picture plane comparable to the spatial projection of the value-heightened discs floating in front of it.

In his replication and multiplication of small, intrinsically uninteresting elements, and with his accent on phase, sequence, and measurement. Poons thus might be seen as carrying on the late-Mondrian tradition. But he tends to de-emphasize or even paint over his guide lines––thereby unmooring the whole network––and to cross-fertilize his various systems with each other, without marking their points of contact. The result is what Gestalt psychologists call “familiarity deprivation,” in which the readability of abstract patterns is threatened by eliminating tactile, directional, or scale changes, and then shifting various series within the overall order. If the resulting illogicality is much unlike Mondrian (as in, for example, Poons’ “Double Speed,” 1963, where antiphonal motifs sink and lose themselves in the brittle drift of dots), the psychology of controlled chance in these works is no less alien to the spirit of neo-Plasticism. However paradigmatic or constructive they may appear, the fact that “relationships” (and accidental ones at that), are found in such compositions only after the application of arbitrary formulae, opposes them to a vision in which individual perceptions and judgments decide a host of spatial interplays which then go into making the structure. There is an exhilarating pessimism about Poons on this level, a pessimism he amplifies by stepping up implications of formlessness and anarchy within a terribly precise syntax.

Yet, this is a mode of, so to speak, visual sensing, with which we are becoming more familiar. We look at, and watch, a Poons picture in confusing alternations that create a fresh kind of excitement. As the psychologist, Anton Ehrenzweig phrased it (“Conscious Planning and Unconscious Scanning,” in “Education of Vision,” ed. Gyorgy Kepes, N.Y. 1965), “thanks to the Gestalt principle, the pinpoint of our conscious attention can only deal with a single variation at a time and would be quite unable to enclose several variations in a single glance . . . It is extremely difficult to imagine the structure of a perception that contains several mutually exclusive variations of a theme in a single act of comprehension . . . I would like to call this kind of perception the ‘or-or’ structure of low level vision. Low level vision is not forced to make a choice between contradicting patterns, but holds them in a single glance.” Or later, when speaking about the apprehension of textiles, he says: “The design motif is at the same time a self-contained image offering esthetic satisfaction, and also a creative motif that can only fulfill itself by being obliterated within the final allover effect.” If there are “or-or” structures in Poons, as I think there are (“Enforcer,” “Nixe’s Mate,” etc.), he does not adhere to them unilaterally: mistakes and additions inevitably work their way into his pictures. And if his art purveys all-over effects, as is certainly the case, no individual passage offers self-contained “esthetically satisfying” details. Here Poons might be located midway between Pollock and Monet, and yet he emerges as utterly modern and different from them, not because his images are relatively closed, compared to their open ones, but because he becomes finally anti-formal as a creator. His work seems to encourage analyses of the kind I have been making, but justifies them only regarding scraps or fragments which are abandoned in a typical facade of incompletions. As with the stars in the sky, one enfranchises and links Poons’ discs and ovals according to whatever myth or fiction one wishes. Only in some of the most recent works (“Northeast Grave”), where the frequencies of blips in diagonal alignments produce outright contour patterns and information overloads, does the composition occlude a happy vagrancy of the eye. In general, however, it should be noted that having established his art as essentially tectonic rather than “retinal,” Poons paradoxically can give up structure. For though his contrasts are always crisp, visually, they are indeterminate, conceptually. He produces equivocal syndicates of sensations.

Yet, despite his recondite methodology, the work of this young artist is drenched in a most immediately sensuous, spellbinding color. His generating idea is a field––once orange, and then, in succession, a cool Permasol or Indian Yellow deep, warm maroons and rusts, and now scarlet––which is seeded by the allocation of colored dots. The more Poons perforates this field, the more he diverges from the fairly unitary schemes of Rothko, Reinhardt, and Newman, to whose work his own owes various divided allegiances. If, in some measure, their procedure was to insinuate resonances within or beneath the chromatic tissue, Poons speckles them from above, concealing or blending nothing, and yet getting as much subtlety or éclat as he wants. In addition, by his uncanny scaling and sensitivity to colors and values, he can change the spatial and chromatic “timbre” of individual zones at will. Or so, at least, is an illusion within pictures whose sparkle and iridescence instantly discourages rational measurement.

Not that Poons is invariably incandescent: in “East India Jack,” a cool rust field is spangled with azure elliptoids, emerald circles, and lavender ovals which merely spice, by analogy or contrast, the prevailing dark, mat, tonality. Or, in “Sicilian Chance,” he will leap, on a yellow ground, from light blue and pink dots to black ones, to achieve an implausible, airy equilibrium of alkaline and acid, the deadpan and the refulgent. Indeed, to find the fulcrum for a new kind of color balance is a problem Poons will go to extreme and unlikely lengths to solve. For one thing, his are the coolest warms, and the warmest cools that can be juxtaposed. These served especially well when he used dyed fabrics, upon which the acrylic spots would be laid––the tactile contrast compensated by the suspended pulses of color advance and recession. Much more recently, desiring to step up the polyphonic charge strictly within the possibilities of liquitex, Poons has infiltrated scores of dots whose color is related to, but far more sallow than, those which create the major counterpoint (e.g., grey-blue compared to turquoise, in “Nixe’s Mate”). The eye takes them in like half or quarter beats compared to full notes (Poons was once a music student) but often enough confuses them, too––with only a dim awareness that new discriminations have to be made for buffer elements.

It should be understood that Poons’ format allows him to treat color mimetically, in terms of echoes––a theme of which he is taking more and more advantage, even to the point of being ironic. In the above-mentioned canvas, for instance, orange-brown ovals, close in value to the scarlet ground, function dualistically: they look like after-images of the go-light greens and ceruleans of the major dots, and as a sub-rosa variation on the chromatic field. A step further, and Poons, in “Julie,” actually paints dark cadmium ovals (on a warm maroon) that are false after-images vying with the “real” (if intangible) after-images created by azure discs. Since in no matter what canvas, the latter appear as transient but more luminous versions of the ground, one is aware of a dialogue between induced, moonlighting vibrations and their physical alter-egos. If it is true that after-images result from a bleaching effect in certain rods and cones of the retina, then Poons is a remarkable conservationist, utilizing exhaustion as much as he elicits excitement. The finest comprehension of the units and choices at his disposal produces, I think, a geometrization of color, fully equivalent to the structuring of his form––and its waywardness as well. Grafted together, the chromatic vision and the intellectual vehicle, are inseparable aspects of Poons’ art, all the more brilliant because he can hold them in such active tension with each other. It may yet be that in his latest orchestrations, the pressure is to break free to a totally lyrical, Impressionist statement. There are, to be sure, signs of unrest among abstractionists, for whom hard edges and geometrically oriented shapes were only color-containing formulae, to be dispensed with at the end of their usefulness. If it comes to this, Poons, at the very start of his career, at once so analytic and synthetic, seems one of the most promising harbingers of the future. In itself, the limited body of work he has created so far is distinguished by its extraordinary cohesiveness and amplitude. Beyond that, one is simply grateful to it for unimagined valences of pleasure, of the body as well as the mind.

––Max Kozloff