PRINT January 1975

Richard Pousette-Dart: Toward an Invisible Center

“I’m interested in light, both inner and outer light. I’m interested in edges, their definition and non-definition.”1

RICHARD POUSETTE-DART LEFT Bard College before the end of his first and last school year in 1936 because he preferred to think for himself. Since then he has done just that. Though associated with the Abstract Expressionists, he moved to the country in 1950, just as the action on the New York art scene began to be publicized. He is a loner whose work lends itself only superficially to categorization, historicizing, even stylistic analysis. “There is a possibility,” wrote a reviewer in 1947, “that we just don’t have the perception to see what the painter is getting at.”2 The situation has not changed greatly in 25 years, though the kind of painting Pousette-Dart does—allover abstraction focused on light and color—is far more familiar to us now than it was then. He has had one-man shows every two years or so since 1941, a retrospective at the Whitney in 1963, and now an unprecedented second large show there 11 years later. There is nothing here for the bandwagon jumpers. The large-scale homogeneous surface was available to Pousette-Dart long before his work demanded its full extension, and it serves primarily as a space within which to explore his own ideas. This he has done with a passionate leisure totally foreign to the notion of formal “advance.” “The great danger to an artist is becoming a product-maker,” he has said. “It doesn’t matter where you fit on the Museum of Modern Art Christmas tree.3

In 1967 John Perreault wrote that since young people, at least, were no longer ashamed of spirituality and contemplation perhaps Pousette-Dart’s time had come.4 It hadn’t then and it remains to be seen if it will, though each show attracts an increasing number of perceptive followers. Left alone with the art long enough, anyone can sense its content. Yet the artist is concerned to “get out of the way of his painting,” aware of the art world’s unease with his often expressed “religious” preoccupations. Though his innumerable private notebooks and pensées stress a combination of the grand American tradition of transcendentalism and a gentle Blakean fanaticism, as well as a combination of Puritan activity and Buddhist patience, his religion is, in fact, simply art: “. . . My definition of religion amounts to art and my definition of art amounts to religion. I don’t believe you can have one significantly without the other. Art is always mystical in its final meaning. . . . The best way to talk about art is to work. The best way to study art is to work. The best way to think about art is to work.”5 What is unique about Pousette-Dart’s painting is the degree to which these preoccupations inform pure abstraction, physical and emotive characteristics coincide, the intensity with which the observer is led from sheer optical and sensuous pleasure to a more contemplative level. He is therefore “religious” in Clive Bell’s sense: “the religious spirit is born of a conviction that some things matter more than others. . . . All artists are religious, all uncompromising belief is religious.”6

There are four main vehicles for his content: the apparently homogeneous “allover” paintings; the “hieroglyphs,” which contain more focused areas of calligraphic or galactic imagery; the imploding or exploding circles; and those paintings with distinct planetary or biomorphic shapes, which I find least successful, falling as they do all too frequently into a lurid science-fiction pictorialism, such as the “moon and cosmic egg” forms which dominate the 1972 Merging Presences. In all of these types—especially the hieroglyphs, Pousette-Dart balances between a beautiful and a merely pretty painting. In the hieroglyphs, the nervous tracery of gestural squiggles and spirals and circles and stars combined with pastel colors can fade dangerously into pattern rather than into the far more majestic space to which he is accustomed. On the other hand, the risks he takes usually pay off and result in amazing variety. Hieroglyph #1 is a brilliant dark blue with vibrant bouquets and bursts of reds and yellows—crazy large forms, a lower central focus on a childlike sun; Hieroglyph #4 is more sedate, including what appear to be architectural references—arches, ogives, even an atypical rectangle. The small Hieroglyph of Light is one of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition (and for some reason the only one with a heavy impasto). The paint is laid on in straight-from-the-tubefuls over an inch thick—swirls and piles separated by deep valleys and thinning abruptly to a flat gray border. Hieroglyph #3 is pink with an unusually regular distribution of blue circles alternating with irregular white ones and graffitilike scrawls; Hieroglyph #2 is black-and-white, an impressive example of how to invoke light and color effects without color. (It is absurdly reproduced in color in the catalogue, thereby acquiring blue and green tinges nonexistent in the work itself.) Dark holes at the top, pockets of white ideographs and an upper off-center concentric circle below bend the surface from “close-up” to an illusion of immense distances, while, typically, maintaining a flat Cubist surface.

Most of the allover paintings appear to be monochrome, but are in fact highly multicolored. Most of them are supported by a grid armature which may or may not be just barely visible. Emergence, for example, at first glance seems to be solidly cool blue greens, but on scrutiny contains a good deal of brown and other warm colors. It is, characteristically, very different when seen up close, then at a normal viewing distance, and then from far away. First it is a tightly woven network of dots with a great variety of strokes and directions, each small area unlike the one next to it. At a few steps away, one perceives the grid, may vaguely notice a circle and oval shapes of the same size, but the general feeling transmitted is still very quiet and very even. From a distance, however, the shapes stand out much more distinctly and one sees that in fact most of the squares of the grid are filled by a circle or oval, which sometimes overlaps to suggest the uniform surface seen under other conditions. Radiance #1, also apparently uniform, has a crusty white surface which flattens out of focus in certain areas. White Silence is more thinly painted and yields a subtle pattern of yellow and pink. Radiance #3 is white with pink and blue undertones broken by a surprising little pink circle at far upper left and, very faintly (maybe not there at all) a large “imploding” white-on-white circle. Radiance #5 is also white and looks “cracked,” but actually consists of black pencil marks over a wash surface. Golden Presence is a finely woven wheat-colored canvas in which multicolored tiny dots are as close to evenly distributed as they get. The rather daring Radiance #6, Lavender, which is a carpet of minute violet and green dots penetrated by dark blue “holes,” modulates its lurid color with an elegant refinement. And so forth. The variations are endless for those who, in Pousette-Dart’s words, “open up their imaginations to the vast and unknown wonders of their own feeling.” For this reason I regret that the show’s director—James Monte—did not choose to emphasize this aspect more strongly. In a patchwork installation, general color differences (a red next to a white canvas) pass for variety, which in fact lies in every tiny touch and area of every painting. At times, works which practically kill each other off are hung together; for instance, the bright red Radiance next to the pastel Ramapo Mist, and the quiet Golden Presence next to an almost figurative picture; and then I, of the Circle, a major painting which should have been the focal point of an all-white room so that one could really sink into the similarities and dissimilarities. This did happen in one small room where five white paintings stood up amazingly well against horrendous yellow carpeted walls.

Pousette-Dart’s fondness for the circle is both formal and iconographic. I, of the Circle has an embossed center rising in an inch-high dome, surrounded by an indented “moat” and then progressively less thick paint until the edges and corners, where just one layer of pink and white dabs forms the rectangular and diagonal grid, virtually unnoticeable because the center is so compelling. The eye, the sun, the id, the sex, the Eckhardtian kernel all come to mind and vanish in this setting of shimmering pink, gray, white and black bands (also deceptive, as reds and yellows are the ingredients of what first appear to be pale pinks). In almost the reverse manner, Imploding Light (1968–69) is directly centered on a small, abruptly placed blue black hole, its aureole raying out quietly but irregularly into the warm, almost “dirty” white ground flecked with colored undertones; the surface pulses back and forth from a gray distance, constantly reaffirming a contradictory two-dimensionality.

Pousette-Dart’s ubiquitous focused-unfocused technique implies a more expansive space than is actually pictured, throwing one’s view of the surface off and then reorienting it on another level, in another place. The same effect is produced by a center which is actually off-center, but is so subtly a center in itself, despite its placement, that it mysteriously remains a center, as in Imploding Light (1967) among many others. This is like being told that the earth is not the center of the solar system, that our galaxy is only one of millions. The three blue circle panels which form a mural destined for the North Central Bronx Hospital, though blander because their perimeters on a pale grayish ground are harder and less vibrant, treat the center with equal sensitivity. The panels are almost identical, and no center of each large disc is immediately perceptible. There is, however, a focal nucleus, taking a different form each time, in the same place in each panel, a little bit to the lower left of the center.

The patients may need patience, but the rewards are there. Similarly, the outer edges of Pousette-Dart’s paintings, which thin and blur like a Seurat frame, often turning counter to the axis of the central strokes, serve to contract the picture away from the frame without sacrificing the suggestion of a continuum. He can do this because of the ways discussed above by which he makes the internal surface expand, and the strategy is not noticeable because attention is riveted on the central areas. The stronger the central surface, the more direct the “frame.” In Red Presence (1961), such an expansiveness is doubly achieved by an off-center “navel” (near a less focused “pretender” which does not hold the eye and thereby proves not to be the center), and by the edges, which very gradually straighten and flatten so that the activity subsides gracefully rather than being mechanically cut off.

“All art is abstract and all abstract art is of nature because we are of nature. . . . Art for me is unpredictable spontaneous kaleidoscopes of the imagination.”7

Pousette-Dart is an abstract painter not because these are “modern times” but because abstraction is the sole form language into which he can cram “everything.” The analogies made between his work and natural phenomena arise from his obsession with the energies generated between expansive fields and focal points, centripetal and centrifugal forces, as well as from the color-light sensations which recall Impressionism. Pousette-Dart, also a photographer and a sculptor,8 is as interested in the concrete as in the ephemeral; the mechanical and the scientific as well as music and poetry. The Baroque spiraling movement lurking behind even his most serene canvases recall the writings of Lucretius, Saint Theresa, Descartes, or others who attempted to penetrate the world’s disguises. Or to put this the opposite way, as John Gordon did, though his paintings are “filled with action, the end result is silence.”9

The real likeness to nature lies in the paintings’ rhythms, which you can almost hear from some great distance, and in the relationship of the small to the large, the one to the many, the blade of grass to the plains, the star to the galaxy. Images recalling outer space refer back to inner space. Vastness is implied not only by visual association but by the time element transmitted by the painstaking technique—“many many marks, touches, dabs, points/never enough/colors color colorless,” as he says in a poem. Though a single painting may be worked on for over a decade, culminating in “abandonment” rather than in completion to the artist’s total satisfaction, it is rare that a work is allowed to die under the layers of attention it receives. And, no canvas is complete until the general has permeated the specific.

Pousette-Dart says his paintings are made from “beaten earth and sky,” and he doesn’t want “an earth that hasn’t been danced on.”10—I remember the 1968 Whitney Annual, where his Cavernous Earth with Twenty Seven Folds of Opaqueness (not in the current show) stood out in the motley chic like a real flower among artificial ones. Its emotive depth—a kind of mapping of feeling—was conveyed by an impasto so heavy one experienced a real vertigo looking closely at the mounds of pigment, as though an inch of literal space had become a binocular view of great heights. Similarly one is almost kinesthetically drawn into the more thinly painted allover paintings, which substitute for actual physicality the thousands of obsessive touches, points, caresses, and delicate layerings which pull the eye back and forth across areas which float in and out of focus, in and out of different distances, transforming the rectangle into a metaphor for the spiritual journey.

This essay incorporates some elements of a short unpublished preface written for the traveling exhibition of Pousette-Dart which I organized for The Museum of Modern Art in 1968–69.



1. All the quotations by the artist are in italics. Some have been slightly revised since their original writing.

2. A.L., Art Digest, March 15, 1947, p. 18.

3. Quoted in an unpublished article by Martica Sawin.

4. lohn Perreault, “Yankee Vedanta,” Art News, November, 1967, p. 75.

5. From a talk given at the Union Theological Seminary in 1952: from a talk given in Boston in 1951.

6. Clive Bell, Art, New York, 1958, pp. 63-68.

7. Boston, 1951.

8. His sculpture, described by Sawin as “cascades of twisting stands of wire, punctuated with metal scraps and the whole sprayed with orange ’bridge’ paint . . . unlike anything that had been seen in New York at that time,” was exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951.

9. John Gordon, Richard Pousette-Dart, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1963, p.16.

10. Quoted in Sawin.