PRINT Summer 1968

New Paintings by Larry Poons

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS Larry Poons’s work has been one of the most dependable, not to say predictable, quantities in American painting. Although development of a sort has taken place during this time the autographic clots or lozenges of color, guided by barely visible grid lines across a contrasting color field, have remained in force as the primary agents of Poons’s pictorial ambitions.

The “look” of a Poons, the particular way in which it confronts the viewer, has been equally consistent. Working with greater or lesser degrees of optical contrast between the colors of the dots and the color of the field upon which they are placed, Poons has in one painting after another constructed a color web composed of numerous small intervals of contrast but generating on the canvas as a whole the impression of a single event of vision. Like Pollock’s great works of 1949–50, Poons’s have accepted responsibility for all of their available surface area, and they have worked this area in a way which stresses continuity rather than focus. The image which is characteristic of both painters continually restates the whole of the painted. surface through the cadenced repetition of similar pictorial units. Pollock’s units were primarily linear; Poons’s primarily coloristic; but their function is identical. Pollock’s interest in making pictures this way passed, and so, for the moment at least, has Poons’s. Pollock began to seek out more definite configurations of line, while Poons in his new paintings has begun to reexamine the properties of his color image.

The form of Pollock’s move away from a consistent “all over” image no longer seems so surprising as it once did. The attitudes which would make this move possible were quite apparent in his work of the mid-1940s. Seen in retrospect, the re-appearance of more definite configurations in Pollock’s work has about it an air (probably ill-founded) of inevitability.

While one could hardly say that Poons’s recent work is an “inevitable result” of any particular factor; either latent or apparent, in his previous efforts, it is nevertheless possible to suggest that certain issues were at least under consideration, which, when granted fuller license, had the potential to support a quite radical shift of emphasis.

Beginning with his paintings of 1962–63 Poons maintained two different and, to a degree, opposed attitudes regarding what can be called, for want of a better term, the “surface tension” of his color image. The term “surface tension” is meant to denote the optical tautness, or alternatively, the tractability of the units of color which fill the available area of canvas. In some of his paintings the surface tension is very great in the sense that dots which contrast very strongly with the color of the field are numerous, and the intervals between individual dots or groups of dots are small in scale. The optical flicker produced by the sheer number of dots and the intensity of the contrast they provoke cause these paintings to appear as a frenetically pulsating screen which denies any illusion of thickness or depth in the image.

Opposed to paintings developed in this fashion are those which work with relatively fewer dots spaced at more generous and often quite irregular intervals across the canvas. Here the surface tension is reduced, and the field color threatens to evoke an illusion of deep, almost infinite, pictorial space. Poons’s judicious placement of his dots, their real and apparent “after images,” and his faint but visible linear grids serve to keep the color image firmly two-dimensional. Nevertheless, the possibility of a deeper and richer kind of pictorial space is left to stand.

In paintings which he exhibited last year, Poons seems to have attempted a sort of compromise between these two attitudes (or degrees) of surface tension. Working for the most part with neutral colors in close values, he began to articulate consecutive levels of depth. Dots of a certain color value were distributed across the canvas surface. Then dots of another, and perhaps a third value were supplied in roughly equivalent numbers. As the dots of different values interact in the finished paintings, contrasts, of a sort, appear, but more important are cross-relationships between dots of the same value. These relationships guide a sequence of optical steps back from the picture surface into the field color. Countering this movement is the repetitive similarity of the shapes of the dots (whatever their color value)—a factor which constantly re-emphasizes the lateral integrity of the painted surface as a single unit.

After studying these paintings, one was left with the feeling that a way had been found to sustain opposing attitudes toward surface tension. The paintings were, because of the number and the relatively even distribution of dots, resolved laterally in an extremely tight fashion. At the same time a comparatively rich (although clearly marked) illusion of space emerged. But there was something obviously missing. All of the really emphatic sensuousness of Poons’s color had been suppressed, and one began to realize how unique and important it had been in the past. His effort to sustain an evenly pulsed “all over” image in the face of a general movement away from this kind of image apparent in the work of his contemporaries, Frank Stella in particular, was costing him a great deal. He seems to have realized this, and he now appears fully convinced of the sensuous importance of his color. This conviction more than anything else stands behind the departure which one finds in his most recent achievements.

For Poons as for several other painters during the past year the exemplary work of Jules Olitski has provided an important stimulus and an equally important source of confidence. Without Olitski’s example the radical changes which have come about in Poons’s work would be almost inconceivable. It was Olitski’s recent work which guided Poons along the particular path which he has followed for the past several months. Poons was certainly prepared to change some of his working premises, but Olitski has been largely responsible for determining the form of this change.

More than any other painter currently at work, Olitski has managed to keep the issues and techniques of color painting open. Spray-staining, granular build-ups of pigment, masking, overspraying, heavy impasto drawing-all of these techniques have been called upon at one time or another to support the limitless possibilities of Olitski’s color. Over the past three years Olitski has succeeded in upsetting virtually every tenet of post-Louis colorism. Beginning from the reductive premises of staining, Olitski has systematically rediscovered a whole range of technical effects and subjected them to the discipline and the intuition of his color sensibility. From each effect Olitski has gained some sort (often a very unpredictable sort) of positive reinforcement for the sensuous content of his color. The importance of his overall achievement is for the moment almost impossible to overstate.

Al Stadler was one of the first to recognize and to make use of the domain which Olitski had marked out. In paintings which he exhibited in the fall of 1967 Stadler welded coarse, spattered texturings of paint to flat runs of color. He adopted composing shapes in place of the stripes and fans of his earlier, more Louis-oriented work. With this his images achieved a forceful, at times almost disagreeable, surface hardness, but the mobility and the focus of his color were resolved with a remarkable degree of tension and excitement.

Larry Poons’s response to Olitski has been considerably different from Stadler’s, but there are certain similarities. Poons, too, has begun to use textural opposition to reinforce or to equalize color and value contrasts. Also, he has in some of his new paintings, particularly those finished most recently, permitted his cadences of large-scale lozenges to form themselves into semi-figurative units which might be termed “constellations.”

Two paintings, Brown Sound and Bo Jangel, in particular, yield these figurative units. In each painting lozenges cluster along an undefined central axis within the picture. They twist and turn at irregular intervals, pushing at some points toward the edges of the canvas and at others remaining toward the center. The lozenges themselves are of several different sizes and colors. Moreover, they are painted in quite disparate fashions. Some are flatly and evenly painted with sharply defined contours. Others are equally definite in shape but surrounded by areas of halation which modify color stains left from one or more instances of overpainting. Still others are free, almost cursory, in their definition. These imply a complete (if latent) lozenge shape, but in actual fact they consist of rough streaks of drawing which move in a free, dripping fashion along an oval path, either toward the center or toward the outer edges of the lozenge.

Lozenges of all these types are singled out at one point or another to receive a textural load, applied with acrylic varnish. Through juxtapositions and overlapping with unloaded areas the texturing becomes optically quite active and fully capable of modifying the effect of a pure color contrast. Poons’s color development is itself quite complex in both these pictures, and the texture provides a useful means of adjusting this or that area of the picture. Coupled with the use of direct texturing in the lozenges is an indirect texturing of scraping or rubbing in the open areas of the blue field color of Bo Jangel. This serves to suppress slightly the intensity of the field color in sections where there are comparatively few lozenges, or where the color value of the lozenges approaches that of the field most closely.

Both these paintings demonstrate a kind of color organization which is simple enough to describe but which is frequently surprising in its effect. In each instance Poons works up from the ground color through colored lozenges of closely related values which gradually in crease in their intensity as they multiply and repeat themselves until a pure (often complementry) contrast appears. This development from lesser to greater contrast (or vice versa) is carried out in multiple runs in each picture. In Bo Jangel Poons works from the blue field color in one sequence which moves from mauves through purples to reds and oranges, and in a second which moves up through greens to bright yellows. In Brown Sound he works from a brown field to yellows moving through deep red-purples and shades of orange, and also from several values of green to yellow. These multiple runs of color intermingle as they weave through the various clusters of lozenges that form Poons’s semi-figurative constellations. Only when they have reached their greatest intensities do individual runs of color break up the general flow of color in the image.

The points of climax in the color organization are carefully distributed to different parts of both canvases so as to use the force of strong optical contrasts to prevent any part of the picture from sagging visually. Depending upon the requirements of a particular area of the picture the contrast can be suppressed slightly by an open, freely drawn lozenge, or reinforced by a solid, evenly colored one. Throughout the process of making these pictures Poons has had numerous pictorial options open for his consideration and his use. He can play off the solid or drawn character of his lozenges, their relative texture or regularity of surface. He can extend or restrict the limits of his total configuration of lozenges, and he can manipulate runs and contrasts of color.

In both of these paintings Poons’s methods approach Olitski’s in their freedom, almost randomness of procedure. But accompanying this is a certain raggedness and artificiality apparent in Poons’s deployment of so many effects. A halting process of checks and balances that reminds one of some of the more unresolved qualities of color and configuration in Gorky’s late work, emerges in place of Olitski’s freewheeling fluency and confidence.

At the moment it is difficult to say whether any of this might constitute a major danger or threat extending beyond these two paintings. Poons has obviously decided to purchase some of the sensuous heave and swell of Olitski’s color. In exchange for this he has (in these two instances) willingly relinquished his almost compulsive hold on the surface of his picture and permitted his field color to exert a rich, if still rather shallow, spatiality. In Brown Sound and Bo Jangel he seems to be accommodating himself in various ways to the consequences of his purchase, and although these paintings have the look of uncertainty, they are undeniably courageous.

In two other recent paintings, Fliegende and a large unnamed yellow picture, a more obvious sort of continuity between past and recent work emerges. Both of these are organized in terms of repeated and non-configurative lozenges. In Fliegende most of the lozenges are flatly painted while in the second picture all are freely drawn. Color in Fliegende is developed in a way which recalls the two paintings already discussed. There are, in other words, runs of close values which operate from the pinkish-orange field and work toward contrasting blues, purples and chartreuse. Because of the generally regular cadence of lozenges this picture benefits from that kind of surface security which Poons’s work has always possessed, but the color image as a whole has sacrificed much of the sensuousness which Poons achieves in Brown Sound.

In the large yellow picture Poons has worked almost exclusively with close values, permitting only scattered jumps to a weak light purple and chartreuse. In the field color the staining is in places quite irregular, so that the basic pictorial impact of the picture derives from the interaction of close color values in the lozenges and irregularities in the field color. Looking across the picture from left to right the lozenge shapes increasingly lose their definition and the field dominates. Because of the predominance of close values everywhere in the picture the eccentric imbalance between the left and right sides is not overly disruptive of the lateral integrity of the painting. But, one does begin to feel the need for some attention to the outer limits of the image where things get a bit flaccid, and where one’s belief in the particular point of termination at the edge is left visually unsupported.

Whether Poons eventually chooses to continue with configurative color images or with those made up of repetitive units, he will do so with Olitski’s achievement in front of him, preparing at least part of the way. However, he has and he must continue, in the final analysis, to make his own decisions. His preference for a pictorial structure made up of particles carries with it its own benefits and pitfalls. In his recent work Poons has had some experience of both, and granting the overall quality of his work for the past five years it seems certain that the scale will remain tipped in the direction of benefit. The promise of a real breakthrough in the domain of color is already apparent, and it remains to be seen precisely where this promise will lead.

Kermit Champa