PRINT December 1970

An Interview with Larry Poons

HOW IMPORTANT WERE THE DRAWINGS to the dotted grid paintings?

Not important whatsoever.

But they were made and they do relate to them.

It’s like scaffolding, right. When the picture was finished, hopefully, the scaffolding wasn’t to be seen.

Like structure?

That’s a kind of simplistic idea of structure. If it’s on graph paper, people feel it’s structure. It’s no more structure than anything else. It’s just a lot of people began to think of structure in terms of if you can count them, if you can subtract them, if you can see the whole canvas divided equally, that’s structure. Now, that’s not structure. That’s just divisions. That’s not structure, at least not structure in the sense that a painting assumes structure if it’s a painting. A really nice, good painting has a structure, but it’s a structure that’s integral to the painting and not to any rules. Your experience of the painting is an experience of structure, rather than that sixties simplistic da-da-da kind of attitude that people thought was going to change the whole world, to make painting easy for everyone. Everybody knows how to make a good painting and they all stink. That’s where it ended up.

Why did you switch from the New England Conservatory to the Boston Museum School?

I decided I just didn’t have it as a composer—or even if I did have it as a composer, looking around me I saw a lot of people who were composers at the time (my experience there) leading drab existences teaching. I would have become a composer if I had had my own symphony orchestra. I just got into painting. It’s like I never quite felt at home with really composing serious music and that always kept me nervous. When I got down to painting, I knew where I was, knew what I was doing. I was just more in touch with it. I just wanted to create things (and I wrote poetry). I tried a lot of things.

Do you think New York has affected you?

I’ve always been in New York. It’s not like I made a conscious choice, “Oh, the Midwest is terrible; I’ve got to come to the big city.” I just came from a place nearby.

Are you curious how New York has affected your career?

My career has just barely begun. Thank God. Please.

With the recent paintings, how do you decide when to stop?

When I see something that I like. That’s a nice color there—or something. It’s not easy, but I kind of stop when I have a feeling. I don’t know: “Why not stop? There’s something there.” You stop when there’s something there.

Do you find it difficult working with so many different colors after working with relatively few?

I started using a lot of colors in the last dot paintings. The more colors the better.

Do you still work with colors in terms of values and contrasts and saturations?

That’s how anyone works, but I don’t think about it now. I just respond more directly to the color.

Do you mix your colors?


Anything from Darby Bannard’s articles?

No. That’s nice, it gives you a lot of nice colors. You don’t have that musty kind of odor of being an artist, of going to the art supply store and buying turpentine and Windsor-Newton colors—the real artist trip. I kind of like it on that level. I don’t think it’s of any more importance whether anyone gets it that way or that way or that way. It’s just more convenient. It’s nice. It’s of as much importance as grids.

When you mix colors, do you cancel out values and contrasts?

I try to get it all. Dark, light. To put as much in my paintings as I possibly can. I’d like to really do an overloaded painting. Not just a little overloaded, really overloaded.

Would that mean a larger canvas?

I don’t know what it means. It could. It could be anything. Hofmann didn’t paint enormous paintings, but they sure as hell were large. I’ve never seen a big Hofmann painting, big like a large-size Pollock or Noland—that size. But man, those paintings were big. It’s really a great thing. Every once in a while, I’ve seen that in my work—just a little bit—and that’s an exciting transformation, when you know that the painting is small but somehow your sense of it is like a small Botticelli. It’s like a wall, like the room is full of them, big painting. Bigness for bigness, that bores me. It’s just big.

In Elysium Slip, was the portion of blank canvas necessary for a breathing quality?

Yes, it gives that, but it also levels space. That painting kind of goes deep in places and seeing the raw canvas redefines that plane that you’re looking at on canvas. You know the way Olitski will knock something out on the edge to redefine the plane because it’s going back so far in places. Hit it over here and it redefines the plane—it’s so great when painting does that. Just what’s needed. Very few have that sense, it’s not a calculated sense. It’s a different sensibility. That’s all we have. We don’t have any theories; we don’t have any plans or formula. Nobody does. Everybody’s just kidding themselves. All we have is sensibility or taste, whatever you want to call it. One’s taste is for what one likes and paints and it doesn’t mean it’s going to be abstract. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be figurative; it doesn’t mean that it can’t be watercolors; it doesn’t mean that it can’t be anything. One’s taste goes from primitive art to Clyfford Still. Whatever you like, it’s a tremendous range.

Has your painting process changed considerably?


Could you describe how you paint your paintings now?

I guess I’m working more directly. I’m painting more directly than, say, I was when I used to go through all those preliminary sketches, scaling them, putting everything down, and then, eventually into painting the color—where the process is drawn out. So, when I actually imagined I was painting, it was more of a tail-end of what I was working on, all my energy and feeling being right there. I feel I’m more directly confronting painting than before. I’m trying to get unencumbered with what I feel will look good, unencumbered in a lot of things which I feel are contrary to what I’m trying to do or what I’m actually involved in doing.

After dealing with what could be called a uniform surface, how did you respond to seeing tactility in your paintings?

With terror. (Laugh)

After your terror, how did you react? New Yorkers have—and had—been looking at so much, not flat painting but uniform surface painting and you were one of the first to exhibit paintings in a long time with a tactile quality . . .

Olitski, Olitski, everybody misses Olitski. You can walk down the street with someone who will tell you about this, that, and the other thing. And textures. What are you putting that on me for? Don’t you know that I’m being influenced like everyone else?

But you’re using the influence in a different way.

I hope so.

Then the question is valid.

Of course. What’s the question again? I’ve dodged you.

It’s not to do with density, but the woof and weave of the canvas and the paint which is piled on.

You’re in danger now of making the same mistake as saying, “Ah, what’s the meaning of the grids?” “What’s the meaning of the thick paint?” Well, there’s no meaning to it as far as that is concerned. In fact, I’m getting more of what I like with thinner paint. It doesn’t have to be thick. It got thick because I was pouring and I wanted the paint to stay in place where I poured it. So, naturally, it had to be kind of thick. Now, I’m just getting much more interested in flow of color than how. If some of it gets thick, some of it gets thick. It’s not a plan, “Ah, I’m painting thick paintings now.” I paint thin paintings, too. That one downstairs is pretty thin. It’s not an issue. I just had to laugh, someone said, “It’s related to earthworks.” So, it kind of took some dummies to show me something. I call them dummies because they said, “It’s meaningful—or the grid’s meaningful. All the thick paint looks like earth, that’s meaningful.” Anything could be earth. It did show me something: it was there. I felt that much of it, all the time, is not what I’m after. I like thickness. I like texture. These are some of the things I’m trying to work with. But no position, no school, no good idea. Just an element that’s always there. And I realize that I’m kind of overloading it. I liked all the paintings better before they cracked. So the trick is to use less pigment and more mediums and gels so that it won’t crack as much and also to hit the painting quicker so that I don’t have to keep painting over it, which makes it thick. Hitting a painting and getting off it. Where it’s thick, it’s thick. I can play with it, it’s source material.

How do you determine the top?

What about the sides?

OK. How do you determine the sides?

With my eyeball. I eyeball it. It’s another process of trying to find out where the painting is, right. Where is the painting going?

What do you think your experience of painting your earlier pictures has given to the new ones?

I guess working with color. It’s crucial.

Do you think that ideas of all-overness are necessary?

Nobody knows what’s necessary anymore. Everyone is being frightened and shocked and surprised by things because there are no rules about how it should be. It can look like a pretty girl; it can look like a landscape. Why not? That Ron Davis over there looks like a circus seal’s stand—the thing it gets up on when it bounces a ball on its nose. Why can’t a painting look like that?

Hasn’t a lot been written about your relating to Pollock’s all-over painting?

When they talk about all-over paintings, in a sense, they’re talking about Pollock, but then in a sense, they really aren’t. Say, my all-over paintings (just one color and then something goes on over the entire surface) are a hell of a lot different than all that. That’s not all-over painting. There’s density and openness around the edges—that’s all-overness, if you can call that all-overness. The kind of sixties all-overness is something else and the two get confused. Like Stella’s concept of all-overness was, well, what starts here goes across the entire painting and it’s like zip, zip, zip, and that’s it. I would say that what gets confused with the term all-overness is more like repetition. People began to call repetition all-overness. It’s a good term, it’s a good word, if one can get a handle on what everyone’s talking about. Anything can happen. It’s preparing yourself for that task of being an artist.

So much was made of the dots in the earlier paintings, but wasn’t the negative space as important a consideration?

Someone who once liked my work—I thought he liked my work—came down to my place and looked at a new painting where the dots were of very close values and it was a very dark painting. I asked him, “What do you think?” “I don’t like it.” I was surprised. “What’s wrong with it?” “Well, I can’t see the dots, I can’t see the outline of the ellipses.” I said, “Well, what are you talking about?” He said, “Well, I like your paintings when I can see the shapes.” All the guy was looking at were the shapes, you know. That’s why he liked my work, because he could see clearly defined ellipses or dots. That was bringing it all home—and very surprising. Guys who were writing about my work and liking it were seeing it in the same way. It’s sometimes very surprising why people like it and what you assume is just absolutely ninety degrees wrong. Eventually, I think you’re able to round up maybe two or three people who are the audience for your work, who know what you’re doing, what you’re trying to do. But more important than that is that you know these people like painting. They experience painting in a way that may not be in agreement with you, but for what they are. Not for reasons, but for what they are, whatever they are. A friend of mine once said, talking about a very good painter’s work—talking about a series of paintings—they look awful, but they never got worse. Bad paintings just get worse and worse. Others can stay terrible for twenty years, but they never get worse. And joyfully, better.

Phyllis Tuchman