PRINT Summer 1965

Larry Poons

Born Tokyo, 1937.
Studied at New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, and Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, 1955–57.
Lives In New York City.

PART OF THE FASCINATION OF LARRY POONS’ ART is the extreme subtlety with which it functions at the borderline of randomness, despite its rigorous, systematic and complexly planned overtones. Thus it appears simultaneously to manipulate and balance two mutually exclusive approaches—the precisely ordered and the haphazard. These contradictory aspects derive from a very personal range of coloration, articulated by the optical bounce of the dots or ellipses rhythmically pulsating off and on as well as backwards and forwards. In addition, these same elements stimulate into operation a subliminal linear system. The mode in which these phenomena simultaneously contradict one another inaugurates a complex field of wave assaults of disruptions and reformulations in the eye of the observer. This double-opposed organization allows for an extraordinary variety of cyclical rhythms as well as spatial activities which add, in no small degree, to the tension of his work.

Poons has obviously distilled some of the more radical aspects of late Mondrian, in particular, the rhythmic harmonic color structure of discrete elements set in a moveable relationship. However, not only the scale of Poons’ painting, but other effects are far more obligated to the Abstract Expressionist painters. Pollock, for example, organized his typical cosmos (particularly in the paintings of the early fifties) to act within a vast space which contained a minute module of effects. But there is often a decrease in energy at the edge of Pollock’s painting induced by a slackening in the intensity and density of the paint at the periphery. Poons’ work is not inhibited by this sense of a boundary—he intensifies the notion of a continuum by the overall continuity of his perceptual effects. In other words, Pollock’s painting is intimately involved with bodily gesture; Poons, instead, deploys a heightened sense of the arena of the observer’s perception in relation to the size of the canvas. Pollock’s rhythmic criss-crossings not only set up points by intersecting at various angles, but each specific skein of paint assumes a unique identity. Basically, Poons’ art does not rely on the idiosyncratic character of each element; instead position and relationship assume a function.

The solid color field which is the theatre of action in Poons’ painting genealogically derives from Newman. Instead of declaring space by the internal divisions so typical of Newman, he activates the space, or defines the surface of it, in terms of a serial system of small discrete shapes of regimented size, each with a precise locus which is extremely critical. The area of the flat colored ground is divided either by a revealed (pencilled) or an implicit grid, that is, one that was there but is later buried from direct vision by overpainting. In any event, it can either be seen or felt to be there. The position of the dots (or ellipses) in their relationship to the grid is systematically worked out in advance in drawings, without consideration of color. The dots, apart from being acutely located in space, also have shape, size and an extremely visual solidity of appearance. The positioning of the dots within the grid reflects the complexity of choice by recording minute adjustments of the hand. The solidity of the appearance of the dot shape is further magnified by a pasty paint body which intensifies a consciousness of size. Thus the dots not only work as locus, but also as figure, and finally as color. In the end, this deliberation makes for one of the more radical moves away from the connected line drawing or contour-edge formed by two shapes abutting. The emergence of subliminal tracks or linear rhythms from the mind of the observer connect and interlock relations between points. By allowing this interconnected foci to form in the viewer’s eye, he has released a whole new order of ambiguity.

The works have an extremely contemporaneous sense of color, very related to the post-Abstract Expressionist generation of American painters. Without any immediate environmental or naturalistic overtones, it bears no relationship to scientific or idealized primaries of neo-Plasticism, yet it is totally synthetic—his color can be thought of as a man derived color-texture relationship. In earlier canvases the ground color is dematerialized by stain application, the texture of the canvas remaining unobscured; in later works the body is denser. The range of his color is moody, dry, and harsh, with an acid edge mediated by a somewhat more sensuous choice of dot color. His color is also restricted to ones yielding an optical flux by the interaction of the dots with the ground. Poons never stresses the percussive pitch to the maximum—if he never quite seduces the eye, neither does he rupture it.

Poons appears to work very empirically, keeping a taut control over the development of his work. The early paintings are sparse and laconic, but by 1964 the compositions are denser with a considerable acceleration of wave motion. The color is more varied and complex, the diagonally positioned ellipse is introduced, and the system of interaction gains thereby in intricacy. In a number of recent works he returns to sparse compositions, yet they are sufficiently complex so as to seem almost eccentrically random.

John Coplans